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Pulp Culture
'The Stone Canal' tops the
year's best science fiction


December 21, 2000
By Franklin Harris

I confess I'm cheating a bit with my pick for the best science fiction novel of 2000. Ken MacLeod's "The Stone Canal" was first published in the United Kingdom in 1996, but the first American edition wasn't issued until this year.

It's a technicality, sure, but it's my Best of 2000 list, and I'm making the rules.

MacLeod's tale begins when Jonathan Wilde wakes up hundreds of years in the future, surprised to learn he's on New Mars, and even more surprised to find he's still alive, since the last thing he remembers is being killed by his best friend.

The action shifts back and forth from the future, where Wilde tries to piece together the mystery of his existence, to the present, where Wilde is a young libertarian anarchist and budding ideological father to the future New Martian society. Along the way, MacLeod introduces us to a world where death is a temporary inconvenience, nanotechnology rules, government doesn't and self-aware robots can program themselves with new personalities and skills as the need arises.

There are lots of interesting ideas in "The Stone Canal," including MacLeod's vision of what life might be like when everything around you, from your table to your jacket, is made of atom-sized machines that are smarter than you are. (And what happens when those machines start to think so quickly that every second for us is 100 years for them?) But what makes "The Stone Canal" my literary SF pick of the year is the fact that MacLeod can really write, a talent most SF writers lack.

If he weren't practicing his art in a literary ghetto, MacLeod would be showered with awards. As it is, he's earned the raves of his peers and two Prometheus Awards for best libertarian science fiction novel (one for "The Stone Canal").

Two of MacLeod's other novels, "The Cassini Division" and "The Sky Road," are also now available.

Deciding on the year's best comic book is more difficult. In terms of sales, the comic-book industry may be on the verge of a depression. But in terms of quality, it's hasn't been so strong since the heady days of the 1980s, when Frank Miller ("Batman: The Dark Knight Returns") and Alan Moore ("Watchmen") were getting the attention of even jaded mainstream critics.

It's fitting, then, that I give the honor to Moore.

Although most of his recent output has struck me as bland, Moore has two recent masterpieces: "From Hell," his take on the legend of Jack the Ripper, and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," my pick for 2000's best comic-book series.

''The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen''
In "League," Moore (along with illustrator Kevin O'Neill) creates a superhero team for the Victorian Age, made up of heroes (and less savory characters) taken from Victorian literature.

Led by secretive divorcee Mina Murray (better known as Mina Harker of "Dracula" fame), the League is comprised of adventurer Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man and Dr. Henry Jekyll (a.k.a., Edward Hyde).

They answer to a fat dandy named Campion Bond, who, in turn, answers to a mysterious spymaster known only as "M." (Is it Mycroft Holmes? That would be telling.)

Together, the League takes on the threat of a devilish Chinese crime lord, who looks suspiciously like Dr. Fu Manchu, and even greater threats to Her Majesty's Realm.

The first six-issue miniseries (another is in the works) is collected in a handsome, hardcover volume.

It was a bad year for science fiction and fantasy films, unless you're making a "worst of" list, in which case "Red Planet," "Battlefield Earth," "Mission to Mars," "Dungeons & Dragons" and "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" provide plenty of material.

On the other hand, "X-Men" was pretty good. But one film was even better: "Unbreakable," starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.

M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to "The Sixth Sense" has been widely misunderstood, but it's an expertly crafted fairy tale for our skeptical age, told in the language of superhero comics.

Mind you, I haven't seen Taiwanese director Ang Lee's recently released martial arts epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" yet, and knowing what I know about it, I'll probably like it even more than I like "Unbreakable." But for now, "Unbreakable" is the one.

In animation, I refuse to pick just one honoree, so I'll pick two.

The first is "Chicken Run," which is not only the best animated film I've seen this year, it's the best film I've seen this year, period. Sure, it's cliched and unoriginal, but stop-motion animators Peter Lord and Nick Park ("Wallace and Gromit") have created a world that's utterly charming and perfectly realized. Their story of barnyard chickens trying to escape their captivity pays loving homage to every WWII prison-break movie ever made, gives children lots of slapstick laughs and keeps adults entertained with jokes meant just for them.

The second is "Cowboy Bebop," a Japanese anime import available on six DVDs or 13 VHS tapes.

"Cowboy Bebop" is a slick, stylish animated series revolving around the adventures of two bounty hunters, Spike and Jet, as they tour the solar system in search of fortune and, well, fortune. Along the way, they pick up a sexy rival, a spastic young girl named Edward, and a dog who is smarter than any of them.

It's half John Woo, half "Ocean's 11" and 100 percent cool. It's a cartoon for grown-ups.

Lastly, my pick for best SF television series is "Stargate: SG1." It may not generate the fanfare that other SF series do, but it is consistently the only science fiction series that doesn't insult my intelligence.

This is an expanded version of a column that originally ran in The Decatur (Ala.) Daily on Dec. 21, 2000.

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