Posted on | December 31, 2014 | No Comments
To cap off the year in review, I must now turn to the finest novel of 2014. It is, in fact, a trio of novels, a.k.a. the much lauded series of Southern Reach short novels by Jeff Vandermeer.
Annihilation, the first one in the trilogy, came out without much fanfare, but word-of-mouth quickly spread – growing into a wave of hype. There were comparisons with Lost, in that there is a lot of mystery with very little explanation in the first book and vague promises of a meaningful resolution later down the line. I was weary of giving it a shot (partly because of the Lost thing, but also because for some reason I kept mixing up Vandermeer with Di Filippo, whose work I detest), but when I saw the page count, I thought – why not? – and a good thing I did. Annihilation was, indeed, captivating. The language was beautiful, and what should have felt like gimmicks (i.e. none of the protagonists have names, merely professions) flowed naturally within the story of the twelfth expedition to a weird roadside-picnickian region of unexplained weirdness called Area X by a team from the shadowy Southern Reach Authority that left me on tenterhooks for the second part of the story.
Authority delivered, and delivered hard. A look into the inner workings of the titular Southern Reach Authority from the point of view of its newly appointed director, dubbed Control (despite the fact that real names slowly start floating to the surface in this one), taking place after the twelfth expedition, very slowly uncovers both the inner workings of the organization, as well as some of the key people involved in the expeditions, both in the field, as well as in the not-too-cushy offices. We are given more, but not too much, retaining much of the mystery surrounding the phenomenon of Area X, but providing heaps of unsettling ambiance that actually left me feeling uneasy the way few actual horror stories manage to.
Acceptance is the final part of the trilogy, and after a lengthy wait, it delivered. There is another expedition into Area X, this time with enough context and background information to unravel the mystery, but by this point, the mystery of what Area X is and why it came to be is falling far behind the issue of how it is. The surreal grinds against the scientific, multiple points of view uncover the history of it all, and both the protagonists and the reader are led to the titular acceptance in a cathartic conclusion that left me thoroughly satisfied.
However, the series is not for everyone. It seems to really divide people in two camps, those enthralled and captivated by the eerie atmosphere, the gorgeous language, the sense of dislocation and the introspective philosophical ramblings, and others, either annoyed at the lack of an obvious “rational” explanation for Area X (there either is one or I’ve read far more into the words than Vandermeer ever put in there) or just bored and annoyed by the never-ending gush of inner monologue, doubts, fears and insecurities of the never too likable protagonists. For me, its mix hit just the perfect spot.
Posted on | December 31, 2014 | No Comments
Every now and then, I get a hankering for a bit of écriture feminine of the fantastic variety, usually as counterpoint to a lot of “manly” reading about explosions and spaceships and boobs and whatnot. That is not to say that there aren’t women writing manly stuff and men writing womanly stuff – that is not even to say that gendering these two types of writing is something to be supported – but much like genres, it makes finding just what I’m looking for that much easier, leading me straight to such wonderful, emotional adventures like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, a (moderately) modern fairytale love story about the titular creatures, unfolding among the Jewish and Syrian immigrant communities of very-early-twentieth century New York. Despite the era, it blessedly avoids all the trappings of steampunk and stays period, and stays, well, very New York, from the little I know about the city. Although there are a few rare editorial-type slip-ups sprinkled around this debut novel, they are irrelevant next to the simple beauty of the writing, and the fact that the author (presumably) writes about other cultures does not come off colonial at all.
That écriture feminine need not be by females is proven by the occasional discovery of people like Jesse Bullington with his The Enterprise of Death, in many ways similar to the above, again a fairy tale love story about magic and its cost in a bergmanesque medieval European/Near-Eastern setting. Bullington manages to weave a fat story, nearly 500 pages of lesbian necromancers, whores, mercenaries and inquisitors that manages to be both an enjoyable adventure, as well as an emotional journey of self-discovery that is never boring.
Tackling a similar setting, but from a distinctly different angle is Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann. If you’ve read Riddley Walker (and if you haven’t – why on Earth haven’t you already?!) you know that Hoban writes intriguing allusion-filled novels with religious-philosophical overtones. Pilgermann is about the essence of a German Jew recounting his story from the moment he cuckolded the local tax-collector through his pilgrimage towards Jerusalem accompanied by a menagerie of ghosts including, inter alia, Jesus Christ. Far less mad than it sounds and far deeper than my description may make it seem, this is a deliberate meditation about life, death, the transience of being and the permanence of creation.
I’ve been introduced to the work of John Hornor Jacobs a couple of years back, through his intriguing delta-blues horror novel Southern Gods, and I was intrigued – it started brilliantly, but fell apart during its second half, leaving me feeling that there was definitely talent there, but one that needed a bit more practice. It would seem that in the interim, he’s had plenty. His young-adult outing The Twelve-Fingered Boy, the first part of a trilogy, is an interesting bit of anti-harrypotteriana, with correction-home misfits with special powers being discovered and hunted by others with similar capabilities, but the book that really made an impression on me this year is The Incorruptibles, an intriguing bit of fantasy-western meshed with alternate history where Rome is the principal global power, much like the USA is today. We follow a steamship driven (literally) by demons chugging upriver and beset by elves of a distinctly vicious and incomprehensible variety, led by a family of Roman nobles on a secretive mission, observed and recounted through the eyes of a dwarven soldier from among the rank and file. The worldbuilding itself was enough to sell this, and the fact that it is a well written, exciting western conquest-of-the-wild-frontier adventure was just icing on the alt-history cake.
The list of this year’s impressive feminine novels would certainly be incomplete without the (likely) last book I’ve read in 2014, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. This fantasy novel in a vaguely late-nineteenth early-twentieth century alternate reality filled with murdered gods and nations clinging to half-made-up glorious national histories (a theme ever too familiar sounding to us in the Balkans) started off like very light, perhaps even trashy beach-reading fare with an almost stereotypical plucky heroine and her trusty (and burly) northman companion trying to solve a murder case, but nevertheless, despite my aversion to whodunnits, it all felt very enjoyable. However, the story quickly descended into deep philosophical analyses of the nature of myth, history and identity with characters slowly uncovering layer after layer of ever more depth, while still remaining an exciting balls-to-the-wall adventure in a brilliantly imagined world, making this my candidate for 2014’s fantasy book of the year (a clean sweep mainly because most of the above are not from 2014).
Posted on | December 28, 2014 | No Comments
My passionate love affair with Peter Watts’ writing is well documented already, so it will come as no surprise when I say the long-awaited Echopraxia, a sequel to the mindblowing Blindsight, was absolutely amazing. Yes, the “mindblowing” bit is missing now, simply because when I came across Blindsight I hadn’t read anything like it before – this is quite impossible to do with the sequel. But the book is incredibly clever, chock-full of amazing ideas and requires use of the brain while reading, and rewarding you for that as things unravel. There may be a problem with that, however – some people, apparently the author included, believe that the book is too clever for its own good, and Watts may aim to simplify (nooo!) the now inevitable (yay!) final part of the trilogy. I, for one, would shed a tear.
However, it would seem that Watts is not alone, that Canada is fertile ground for oddball writers in general. I ran across Tony Burgess in a roundabout way, after having watched the bloody weird and bloody excellent indie movie Pontypool. Most of it takes place in a radio station during a rather weird apocalyptic outbreak of… something. It’s hard to say more without major spoilers, but it was so bizarre, yet it made a lot of sense. So, when I discovered it was based on a novel, I decided to look up the man’s bibliography, and test the waters with his relatively short not-really-a-zombie novel The n-Body Problem. What I mean is, the book unfolds after the zombies are killed, then disposed of in orbit around the Earth, but this mass of still-wriggling bodies filters sunlight in such a way that makes the survivors go maniacal, suicidal, and generally insane. The mad gore-fest that ensues makes sense in a sweaty nightmarish way, but this is a book that, if you look at the reviews, leaves people either slightly shell shocked but wanting more, or really grossed-out and wanting nothing more to do with Burgess.
Well, you can guess where I landed in that equation. Having given myself a couple of months to recover, I dove into the original Pontypool Changes Everything novel. The story takes place parallel, but in different locations, as compared to the movie. Still, I knew what the outbreak was, and it lost some of its punch in that arena, but still, it was a mad ride down a semiotic rollercoaster of a “zombie” novel that again, is anything but. Once again, this is a book that is not for everyone – as one reviewer puts it, “Mr. Burgess has made a very close approach to Finnegans Wake with Zombies” – and much like Finnegan’s Wake I suspect there are many who will feel that navigating the literary madness is too much effort with too little payoff, but there are enough people who disagree, and thus Burgess has developed a small, but steady cult following.
The name of Brent Hayward I encountered on a few blogs, as promos started appearing for his forthcoming novel. The premise seemed interesting, so I looked up his previous works, and discovered he came recommended by Watts. Well now. Taking his short bibliography chronologically, I first blew through Filaria, an odd story of a buried future utopia-or-refuge-gone-wrong. While the trope has been done already, and done enough to slowly slide towards cliché, Hayward avoids this by both not making the discovery of the true nature of the “world” the central issue of the novel, as well as not making it a logansrunesque full story arc where our intrepid heroes go from discovering the truth to overturning the system and leading everyone to a true utopia, choosing instead to stay at the level of intimate interlocking stories within the decaying world.
The Fecund’s Melancholy Daughter, on the other hand, is a really difficult novel to describe in a few sentences. Almost like poetry in prose, it is a strange blend of fantasy and science fiction, like a less explainy Mieville taking place in an indeterminate far future, with a dreamlike flow that concludes a number of story arcs and brings a sense of closure despite not entirely following traditional narrative structures. Humph. Hayward is a tough nut to describe, and I guess that’s what, quite undeservedly, makes his ratings suffer and keeps his name relatively unknown, even among genre fans.
Posted on | December 26, 2014 | No Comments
Though much of my non-fiction reading this year was dedicated to books about pregnancy and babies, for yes, even us nerds sometimes manage to procreate, I did manage to slip in a few non-themed titles.
John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a delightful analysis of some of the roots of modern English as we know it, but not from the simplistic “well, it took a bunch of words from these other languages” perspective, opting instead to look into the development of its grammar and some influences generally overlooked by other experts (mainly that of the Celtic languages native to the British isles prior to most of the major conquests). The only issue I have with this brief, yet entertaining book is that it spends a considerable amount of time actively arguing with experts McWhorter disagrees with, leaving a reader who isn’t familiar with the fact that there are contrary opinions on these issues with the feeling of watching a somewhat pythonesque one-man boxing match.
Equal measures funny and unsettling is Desmond Morris’ The Human Zoo. Having already read The Naked Ape, I was ready for more of the same – the author uncovering how despite all the trappings of modern (socio-technological) life, we are still merely animals with a few clever tricks thrown in, but the extent to which this is done gave me pause. His analysis of the equivalence of baboon and human social behavior makes watching the news, going out for a night on the town or just simply talking to friends a depressingly apish affair. However, far from being just a depressive look in the mirror, this book, along with its predecessor, makes me amazed at just how far we’ve come and what we’ve accomplished, despite being merely talking monkeys.
Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here asks, as far as I’m concerned, the right questions. While nominally discussing the big why of the arrow of time – not only why does it flow in the direction it does, not only why does it flow the way it does, but also, just basically, why does it flow, or indeed, do anything at all – it manages to touch on a plethora of other subjects. To my immense delight, the section regarding the theory of relativity provided an interesting explanation of spacelike and timelike paths that finally dislodged a pebble that kept me from firmly grasping the concepts and being able to operate them in my mind. The final part of the book may be a bit unsatisfying, since it is not so much an explanation as it is a compendium of questions we (as a species) have, some attempts at answers, pointers as to which among those have been proven wrong and which may still hold out hope, and a list of questions still open. It did, however, leave me with the pleasing knowledge that the questions most people seem generally uninterested in yet I often wrestle with late at night, during bouts of insomnia, are questions that bother at least some other people as well, and that there are those with mathematical and experimental capacities beyond mine willing to take them on and, hopefully, one day, crack the underlying codes of the Universe.
No less mindblowing, but in a completely different arena, was John Yorke’s Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story. Recommended by my good friend, this is one of a handful of books I can safely say every writer should read. It’s not just one of those humdrum how-to books on writing, it’s not a sentimental memoirish affair like Stephen King’s On Writing, it is more like a particle physics type of analysis of storytelling and narratives in general. It looks at what makes good stories good, tries to break things down, analyze the shit out of them, then put it all back together for a synthesis, leaving the reader (more) able to recognize why a given story works, while certain others do not. For me, personally, a few revelations enabled me to start writing again after a long fruitless pause where I constantly felt that I was missing or misplacing something in the words put to screen. As it turns out, that something was proper, archetypal structure. That is not to say that my writing has gotten better after reading the book, but it did become writing once more, with beginnings, middles and ends, instead of endless fumbling starts that end up nowhere in particular.
Posted on | December 25, 2014 | No Comments
It may seem that Goodreads has pretty much made these types of “year in review” posts pointless. You can list the books read in any one year by any one user, open them in table view, sort them by date or by rating or whatever other method you prefer, and see what their top five or top ten or top however-many list looks like (FWIW, my 2014 review can be found here).
But unless that person is an avid Goodreads reviewer – and most of us are not, sticking simply to recording what we’ve read, perhaps dealing out the rather coarsely grained star-based ratings – the list will not tell the complete story. For example, I’ve marked 64 books as read during 2014 – a nice, round number. But among those, there are books that have not been rated for various reasons (e.g. rating the various versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh would have been kind of pointless), along with a fair number of those with one-star ratings, again, for various reasons.
Some of those are books I read and seriously disliked, like Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, an utterly pointless novel that makes a pointless plot even more pointless by ending with a “well, despite cosmic probabilities working against them, our protagonists, basically, got incredibly lucky and things worked out” ending, or Mark Anson’s Below Mercury, a highly rated and hyped hard-SF novel that just takes so fucking long to get started with the blindingly obvious plot that by the time it does, all the cardboard people feel like they are just going through the motions or a story that would have worked so much better as a fifty-page novella.
Others I have not actually completed, again, for various reasons. There’s the “I can see you trying really hard” brigade, where the author is making such an effort at being cool and edgy that the cogs of the writing machinery are showing through, such as with Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince, or Gareth L. Powell’s Ack-Ack Macaque. With Rajaniemi, this bothers me a lot, because I can see that there is an interesting story there, and there is definitely craft at work, but his hyperbaroque wordsoups make it too much effort to follow without an equivalent payback, much like a late 20th century French philosopher hiding lack of content behind unnecessarily complex made-up lingo. With Powell, on the other hand, I feel there is no great loss, for there was never much more in play beyond the half-drunken idea of a fighter pilot monkey.
Then there are the novels where the middlingly interesting characters keep plodding back and forth across a made-up narrative terrain slowly killing any initial interest in the story. The offenders here were Lucius Shepard with Green Eyes and David Edison with The Waking Engine, both books where I would gladly read the cliff notes version just to see what happens, but am unwilling to trudge through all those pages for the same result. These are, however, slightly ahead of books where no initial interest ever developed, where boredom with both plot and people prevented me from delving to any significant depth, such as Ania Ahlborn’s Seed or Jeffrey Ford’s Crackpot Palace.
A wholly separate category is reserved for books like The Land Across by Gene Wolfe, a poster-child (poster-old-man?) for artists who were once wildly original, creative and imaginative, but have in the meantime, well, continued doing the same old schtik while the world has moved on. In science fiction, arguably an inherently forward-looking genre, this is equal measures sad and unforgivable.
Now, having dumped on those who annoyed me this year, I can skip over my personal midlisters, those that were “just okay”, including some seriously (over)hyped works (Leckie’s Ancillary Justice failed to impress, Simmons’ The Abominable seriously annoyed, while Munro’s Too Much Happiness started strong and then became boringly repetitious), sidestep some obvious quality classics (Nabokov’s brilliant Pale Fire or Steinbeck’s exquisite Grapes of Wrath) and skip straight to recommendations of slightly less known books that seriously blew my socks off… or just stayed with me long after finishing them.keep looking »