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Bookworm 2015: At the Pinnacle

Posted on | December 31, 2015 | No Comments

26187256I inadvertently lied a couple of posts back. I said no book from 2015 really blew my mind, and right after hitting “Publish” I started reading Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself. The result? Mind: blown. Well, that may be a bit of hyperbole right there, but it is by far the best science fiction novel I read that was published this year, taking the concept of alien otherness a couple of steps further than is usual within the genre, to the point where Roberts plays around with Kant’s concept of the titular ding am sich, essentially reflecting on the fact that no matter how impartial and objective we believe we are when trying to imagine aliens, we are stuck within our human-centric worldview to the point of crippling inability to, perhaps, look beyond terms we believe are fundamental to reality – space, time, matter, energy. This kind of thinking links beautifully into a couple of sci-pop books I recently enjoyed, touching on questions that bother me when the lights are out and the brain won’t shut down. The fact that it is all wrapped into a man-on-the-run action-scifi story just makes it all that much more enjoyable. Oh, and the implied link to Carpenter’s The Thing? It’s just a marketing gimmick, the book is “two guys stuck in an Antarctic research station” only for the first chapter, it then branches out both in number of characters, as well as time and space, jumping back and forth through centuries to provide brief snapshots of humanity facing Kant’s thing in itself in a number of intriguing ways.

19500625You may have noticed that I was very careful to say that Roberts’ was the best book from 2015. This is because the best book I’ve read in 2015 was actually published in 2014. I’ve already written about Brent Hayward, who is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. His Head Full of Mountains does not disappoint in the least. Among the many “forgotten generation ship” stories that I’ve read (and I have a thing for that sub-genre, so I’ve read quite a few), this one really stands out as a shining example of how to write bold, beautiful prose that doesn’t patronize its reader with pages and pages of exposition, that thrusts you headlong into an alien, confusing, truly future world and lets you swim with the current, trying to discover by yourself what is happening and how things work, through the experiences of the protagonist. The story is, up to a point, in a similar vein as Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three or the movie Pandorum, but the difference is that Hayward, thankfully, does not throw us the tired “woke up with amnesia” trope, the journey of discovery is predicated on the protagonist’s limited worldview, and secondly, that this is a truly forgotten generation ship, the last refuge of mankind in a future that functions as incomprehensibly to us as our modern society would to a caveman. Yet, in all this otherworldly strangeness, Hayward masterfully manages to retain the reader’s interest, in both characters and plot. To be clear, this is not a book I recommend to everyone. To read it, you need a very solid, if not above-average grip on SF tropes and the history of the genre, as well as some exposure to modern post-human works like, for example, Accelerando. Even then, the read is not an easy one, but if you are looking for challenging, poetic, and above all different fareyou will enjoy it immensely.

14603113The third book that goes into the top-tier is one I’ve read and re-read just about a thousand times this year, one that was a veritable life-saver on numerous occasions, a book that never leaves the go-bag: Michael Teitelbaum’s The Very Hungry Zombie. Among all the board-books we have, this parody of The Very Hungry Caterpillar proved to be the most interesting, fascinating, attention-grabbing one for our tiny offspring, and the quality finish means that no matter how hard she gnawed on it or poked the holes in the heads of the victims, following the shambling footsteps of the titular zombie, it remains in one solid, sturdy piece after an entire year of rough, saliva-and-budding-teeth handling. Oh, and the looks on other parents’ faces when they see what the child is paging through with rapt attention? That alone is worth a dozen times the price of admission.

Bookworm 2015: Running Up

Posted on | December 30, 2015 | No Comments

66657Kelly Link can write the shit out of words. That is why, having read her first short story collection, I kept the next two squirreled away for those interminable nights when nothing in my to-read list looks just right. Well, as I was writing this package of reviews for last year, I hit just such a moment, and so: Magic for Beginners. I was afraid that the novelty factor would wear off. That I might find the magic gone, the stories just a postmodern mishmash of poor imitations of magical realism. That I might grow bored with the lack of standard story structure, with the dreamlike procession of imagery. For some, this happens. Not for me, though. Once again, each of the stories grabbed me by the brainstem and pulled me forward through the pages, leaving behind images and themes I would reflect on for days to come.  The gang of kids following the psychedelic TV show with magical librarians; the witch’s boy who seeks revenge covered in catskin; the lost handbag that contains another world.

2939570Four months later, and once again I couldn’t hold back. I dug into her YA collection Pretty Monsters and found that she didn’t ease off the pedal just because the book is aimed at a younger audience. Some of the stories were reprints – a few from Magic for Beginners – but overall, a gorgeous collection of weirdness packed into beautiful sequences of words that uniquely work despite breaking all the rules. Well, work for some people, others find it unreadable, and you may fall into that category, but if you haven’t yet read any Link, do try, there are plenty of free samples online. Once you get hooked, though, it’s hard to give up.

22226049Ms Link is not the only delightful author dabbling in weirdness that I’ve ran across (relatively) recently. Timothy Jarvis was a most pleasant discovery with his “antic fiction”. The Wanderer is a whimsical, yet eerie set of intertwined stories that run back and forth through time and matryoshka narratives, telling the tale of how one man, hunted through millennia, has become immortal and why his is a terrible fate. Jarvis weaves his stories successfully pastiching a number of styles, depending on the time, place and point of view, producing a package at once aesthetically beautiful, haunting, and never boring.

6436602Jesse Bullington, on the other hand, has produced a uniquely ugly work of art in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Oh, his prose is lovely, he has a way with words, but the titular brothers are like some kind of vile, ugly, bearded, self-centred, mirror-universe grave-robbing medieval version of the Winchester brothers, cutting a horrible supernatural groove through Europe as they venture from northern Germany (or thereabouts) to rob the fabled tombs of “Gyptland”. Unlike, for example, Heroes, where all the main characters are clearly assholes, but by the end you start rooting for some of them, no such thing happens here – the characters remain firmly rooted in their assholity, you keep hoping that something terrible will happen to them, and the fact that they just keep going despite all odds is equal amounts frustrating and fascinating.

18309415Rounding off this list of runners-up is a novel I should have hated. Point one: it is a superhero story. Point two: narrative present tense. Point three: short, choppy sentences. Point four: short, choppy chapters. Point five: weird, no-quotation-marks descriptive dialogue. Yet somehow, Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century just took all those elements and produced an intricate, fascinating and atmospheric comic-booky tale of an alternate universe World War II (and its aftermath), filled with ubermenschen on all sides of the conflict, both in open combat as well as in behind-the-scenes intelligence work. But these are not your standard flashy spandex-wearing US superheroes (though those also do, in fact, feature at one point), this is much more of a Watchmen-style story of normal, flawed people trying to do the best they can with the special powers, and thus, special responsibility they are suddenly given. Quite the opposite of Kelly Link, here the story is structured very much like a proper story, but to know whether you will like it, you have to try and see if the style doesn’t get in your way.

Bookworm 2015: Coming Across Sideways

Posted on | December 30, 2015 | No Comments

16131502One of the things I really love about genre is the way it produces stories that are altogether different. Yes, by definition, a genre is a set of tropes that should, in theory, limit what you can tell, but in science fiction and fantasy the very rules of the genre are frequently aimed at breaking out of boxes and thinking laterally, at exploring wholly new ground. One such new ground that is slowly opening up to me is Hispanic literature in its original form. Having started Spanish lessons a couple of years back, and having moved along at a relatively leisurely pace, I am reaching the point where something like Augusto Uribe’s anthology Latinoamérica Fantástica is just within my capacities. It is a lovely little mid-eighties primer on the state of the genres in South America, with a selection of stories intended to showcase the uniquely flavor of science fiction and fantasy that exists south of Rio Grande, but outside of magical realism. It mostly succeeds in this, though there is a definitive slant towards a very peculiar sort of Latino fantasy that is almost, well, the very magical realist fantasy they attempt to veer away from (e.g. the story by Angélica Gorodischer, probably the most high-profile author included). As is to be expected with any anthology, there are a few duds, but there are also works of pure genius, and what’s best, the book is mostly accessible to someone who is at an upper-intermediate level. Unlike Julio Cortázar, with his Bestiario, a book that is fascinating in what I could make out of it, but more than half of the stories remain outside my reach for the moment due to the heavy language used.

18505844Generally speaking, stepping outside the usual Anglophone area often leads to such interesting voyages of discovery. This year, for example, I’ve finally discovered a Scandinavian author I actually like in Emmi Itäranta. Her Memory of Water is a strange book in that it breaks with the usual tropes of dystopian fiction, particularly of the YA variety. It is about a girl inheriting her father’s title and role of tea master in a village in Finland in a post-catastrophic world of scarce water where all of Eurasia is ruled by a Chinese military dictatorship. Perhaps the strangest aspect of the book is that the language flows like gorgeous near-poetry, despite the fact that it is a translation from the original Finnish, though perhaps not that surprising if we know that the author did the translating herself. The fact that there is no “chosen one” and “world-saving” narrative, the focus instead being on an intimate story of discovery and peril, seems to be elbow-chewingly boring for some people, but for me it was perfectly meditative, like the much-featured tea ceremony.

636223Of course, discovering rare and weird gems does not require leaving Anglophonia altogether. Often times, the very English will spring something truly, disturbingly original and sideways on us, like Anna Kavan’s Ice. As a friend put it in her review that made me pick up this weird nugget of a short novel, it is “a housewife on heroin writing Ballardian SF about a world freezing over, from the standpoint of a (probably) psychopath tortured by sadistic visions of torturing and killing a frail blonde girl he hounds across unrecognizable continents”. The novel flows in wave-like repetitions, slowly meandering with ever-increasing violence and feelings of perdition towards an inevitable universal heat-death, making this definitely not the book if you are feeling a bit down on the weather and in need of a jolly pick-me-up.

263812Much better for that kind of thing to go for something like Fremder by Russel Hoban. Over the years Hoban has become my go-to guy when I just cannot choose the next book, when I would like something intelligent, weird, but not too self-important. Fremder is unusual in being, well, a spaceshippy-SF novel, which is, I’m told, atypical for Hoban, but again, he approaches the entire subgenre from such an offbeat trajectory, weaving existentialism and the Old Testament into the ultimately very personal story of self-discovery and being of an astronaut discovered drifting in space as the sole survivor of the explosion of his ship, that despite all the trappings of the genre present and accounted for, it doesn’t really feel like actual SF, more like beautifully written philosophical mainstream with a skiffy paintjob.

23282249To round off the weird circle, I have to mention a book that drew me in simply because of the title. Archivist Wasp sounds like Nicole Kornher-Stace just smashed two random words together, but once you start reading, it makes sense. Well, the title does, anyway. The book claims to be of the postapocalyptic YA subgenre, yet in all actuality it escapes strict pigeonholing in any one precise drawer. Our titular protagonist is an Archivist, one who collects the wispy and incoherent ghosts of the people from “before”, trying to obtain information and dispatching them to the afterworld so as not to trouble the living. She has to fight to the death every year to retain this position, yet after discovering a ghost that is both physically and mentally present, she undertakes a perilous journey of discovery into the otherworld to find the key to, perhaps, dismantling the tiny dystopia of her village and the system that is keeping her prisoner. The novel has its minor problems, but like most of the works listed in this post, it more than makes up for it with its sideways approach, nudging my slightly “seen-it-all-numbed” brain down interesting new pathways of thought.

Bookworm 2015: Serial Reader

Posted on | December 27, 2015 | No Comments

22886868There is something to be said about reliability. Every year, when summer rolls in, I need to know that I will have good stuff to crackle on the beach. Not too serious, no Gulag Archipelago or Finnegans Wake, but also not too light, no Remo: The Destroyer or Holy Bible. Something familiar, like a well-worn pair of underpants, yet also not boring, like the shadow of a starship obscuring the Moon.

There are certain authors I could rely upon for this. Some of them are still around and kicking. Terry Pratchett is, alas, not, and the somewhat rushed, but still (within the larger out-of-the-book context) incredibly heart-wrenching fare-well of The Shepherd’s Crown marks the passing of a true legend. If you did not read through all of the Discworld novels, some of the action here will be confusing, but if you did, tears will be shed, and the question of which of the characters Pratchett most identified with will definitely be answered.

23154785The clockworkiest of my beach writers is probably Charlie Stross. I honestly cannot remember a summer vacation without a Stross under my arm, and he keeps plopping out at least one book per year during early summer. This year was no exception, but it did mark a deviation; his long-standing Laundry Files series suddenly wrenched the camera and microphone away from the usual “Bob” POV character and shifted its Lovecraft-meets-spies perspective over to his wife, the deadly violinist Mo, in The Annihilation Score. Suspicious though I was at first of this switch, it actually breathed a bit of fresh air into the slightly stale corridors of the Laundry, although it is a bit jarring when Mo, on occasion, suddenly starts smart-assing like Bob, but one hefty bibliography later I already knew enough to recognize a normal segue into the uniquely Strossian dialect of Explainish.

22886612The second clockworkiest and even more ideal for the beach is the faux-author James S.A. Corey with his (their?) Expanse series. This year’s Nemesis Games sees our gang go on individual voyages of (re)discovery, overshadowed by a larger conspiracy being played out in the tense environs of the thoroughly transformed solar system. This is the kind of series that, with a pair of well-practiced writers behind its helm and a regular heaping of the holy trinity, simply cannot go wrong, but for the same reason, also cannot truly boggle brains – just perfect for sand and surf and sun.

22381326The fantasy-author spot that was so unfortunately vacated by Pratchett was very quickly filled by a man who just cannot seem to write anything bad. Joe Abercrombie’s YA Shattered Sea trilogy is not quite on par with the First Law series (and that was a jagzillion pages I burned through in a blink), bur reads just as smooth, and though a bit less complex (to keep with the “YA” label), it is full of twists and turns and bitter disappointments and plans thwarted and forced compromises brought to a satisfying end in Half a War. I am somewhat disappointed that his next, for the beaches of 2016, will be a short story collection and not the kick-off to a new series of hefty brick-sized novels.

24358527One man who may earn a spot among the regulars, if he continues with the book-a-year rhythm, will be Marko Kloos with his Frontlines series, the latest being Angles of Attack. This is a weird beast – whenever I read it, there is a voice in the back of my brain nagging on about how “you should not like this – this is cheap wish-fulfillment Heinlein-knockoff skiffy and it makes no sense” yet book after book I keep returning to this military SF series and our increasingly imperiled collection of squabbling humans on the run from the Lanky forces. The thing is – derivative though it may be, this is one hell of a fun and well written collection of dystopian-alien invasion military SF novels, and much like the aforementioned Remo: The Destroyer – I can’t help loving them despite all their faults.

18968751There are others, of course. People I keep on the “just in case” stack, people I read if I don’t know what to read next, like David Zindell with his Requiem for Homo Sapiens sequence. The Broken God, like the prequel novel, suffers from a preachy and overlong segment that almost murders all the joy out of reading the book, but still it is a sufficiently fascinating mix of philosophy and high-concept SF that it is keeping me hooked. John Hornor Jacobs, whom I have chided a few posts down for one disappointing sequel, produced a fascinating series in another universe, that of the Incarcerado trilogy, where he pulled a Sum of All Fears half way through, turning a slightly offbeat harrypotteriana suddenly into terrifyingly lovecraftian eschatological waters in The Conformity. If only he could somehow stabilize that talent he so clearly has, he would certainly earn a place among the above regulars.

Bookworm 2015: Don’t Believe the Hype

Posted on | December 22, 2015 | No Comments

The hype behind some titles this year was incredible. Not all of it massive, though. There were minor breakout hits that proved to be much ado about cheap and dated mary-sue space opera, like Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. There were promises of vividly original fantasy debuts like Peter Newman’s The Vagrant, filled with unengaging characters doing uninteresting things in an interesting environment, but… mired. In a style. Relying on short sentences. Present-tense narration. Incredibly skilled protagonists. Capitalization. An excess of it. Annoying the Reader. Making him give up. Quickly.

However, these are small fish. They were advertised, some book sites heaped praise on them, even some people whose opinion I usually respect lavished way too many stars on them in their reviews, but they are the kinds of books I smirk on and toss onto the not-my-cuppa heap without second thought, forgetting them almost instantly. The true offenders come in three flavours.

14792342._SX540_The Empty Promise; Victor Milán’s The Dinosaur Lords had so much going for it. Well, it had knights on dinosaurs. A blurb by GRR Martin, saying it’s a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones. And masterful, magnificent illustrations. Combining all of this, it very quickly managed to generate an immense wave of hype, with people shouting “TAKE MY MONEY” at the screen, and myself being one of them. Once you start reading, though, you quickly realize that Milán managed to take a brilliant concept that seems unfuckupable and fucked it up, thoroughly. The characters are uninteresting cardboard caricatures, the narrative is tediously slow, the action is described in a severely muddled way that is painful to follow, and the dinosaurs, after the opening battle, make very little effort to reappear in the story in any meaningful way before the book ends up in the rubbish heap. I can only hope that the suspiciously similar-sounding Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo by Brian Falkner will deliver on the promise this concept doubtlessly holds.

luna-new-moonThe Wayward Master; When Ian McDonald hits the nail on the head, he does it with brutal force, but when he misses, mangling his own thumb, he does it with equal if not more severity. Luna: New Moon had everything going for it: a culturally diverse cutthroat corporate Lunarian society, where familial clans vie for supremacy or simply aim for sustainability of business, where the poor struggle to pay for air while the rich go skinny-dipping in hard vacuum just for kicks. Relatively hard SF (although mining the regolith for helium-3 as fuel has mostly been debunked recently), but still, it should have been fascinating, had it not been for the convergence of three factors. One was the confusing chaotic cloud of names and colorful characters I had to struggle through until I got even a very vague grip on who’s who. Two was the fact that only one of the POV characters was in any way interesting enough for me to care about… a little. Three was the ending and I cannot say more without spoilers, and yes, I am aware that this is “book 1 of 2”, but my problem with the ending is not that the action is unresolved, the complaint is… well. I struggle to find any way of expressing the problem without spoiling anything or giving enough hints to indirectly spoil things. If the general sentiment was similar to mine, I’d have no qualms about this, but since the overall impression I get from other people is that it is an amazingly incredible awesome book, I’ll just quit here, both with my rant as well as with the series. (Oh, and honourable mention in this category goes to Robert Charles Wilson for The Affinities – I mean, what the hell happened there? A kickass writer tackling a highly intriguing concept with the most middlingly fizzle-out story possible).

Three-Body-Problem-by-Cixin-Liu-616x975The What the Fuck is Wrong with Everyone; I fully agree that the sad/rabid puppies are morons, that’s practically a given, and I understand there needed to be a reaction to their efforts to push right-leaning retro-scifi to win at the Hugos, but by the gods was there nothing other than Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem to prop up as a free-thinking diversity-endorsing alternative? The only reason I stuck with the book to the very (gods-awful) end is because I kept thinking – there’s gotta be some incredible surprise twist at the end that will make me revaluate this entire horrendous experience. There wasn’t. Oh, the book starts promising, and the part that takes place during the Cultural Revolution is fascinating and, what’s more, well written. However, everything after that starts to read like the transcript of a schlocky Shaolin Soccer flick but without all the fun and with scientists who don’t seem to know very much science. How much science do they not know? Well, one of the key puzzles involves people playing the titular “Three Body Problem” computer game taking place on a simulated world where the rhythm of day and night, and thus the climate, is completely unpredictable. It takes them virtual eons to work out why that is. Once again, I kept reading, thinking – surely, he wouldn’t have put the solution right in the title. Well, now. And things go further downhill from there, with, as one Goodreads reviewer so very precisely put it, people constantly discussing how “humans don’t human that way” followed by increasingly naïve and caricaturish plot. For representing a supposed reaction to a bunch of Nazi assholes trying to push backwards fifties-style sci-fi on us, the Hugo voters sure made a weird choice in giving the prize to a backwards fifties-style sci-fi novel.

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