Posted on | January 1, 2017 | No Comments
Last year I made the error of kicking off the top-of-the-pops post with the second-best book of the year, leaving the site carrying the runner-up at the top of the page for a while. This year, I will not make the same mistake, and will merely mention, for example, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the utterly silly, short, postmodern sorta-kinda-novel of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo philosophizing about cities mostly fantastic and sometimes real, a book so transparently and fashionably po-mo that it simply should not work, that I should have hated, but could not for the life of me find a flaw with as I leafed through it in rapt fascination. Instead, I will hop straight into the number one spot; Ninefox Gambit is the first book in the Machineries of Empire series by Yoon Ha Lee, a delightfully demented military space opera set in an Asian-flavoured universe of competing calendrical systems, and yes, that does say calendrical as in calendar – the specifics of the calendar predominantly used within a given area of spacetime affect its structure, providing for various exotic forms of manipulation used mainly, as expected, for nudging the fortunes of war. As the many synopses to be found online say, within this world, disgraced captain Kel Cheris must ally with the ghost of a mad general to recapture the Forest of Scattered Needles, an important space station fallen to calendrical heretics. And while I have to admit that though the story itself, once you prune off the frills, is decent, there isn’t much meat in it and it proceeds in a relatively straigthforward manner. But those frills, oh boy, those frills. The mind-twisting system developed by Lee means that you must remain on your toes constantly while reading, and sometimes re-reading parts of the book just to keep up with what’s going on, only to be rewarded by glorious and almost-but-not-really excessive bloodbaths every now and then when either a proper, or even better, an exotic battle flares up. And the language? Lee is a poet writing prose, and although such experiments go wrong more oft than not, in this case, the marriage breeds perfection. Just witness, for example, the opening sentence of the first story in Lee’s short story collection, Conservation of Shadows: “It is not true that the dead cannot be folded. Square becomes kite becomes swan; history becomes rumor becomes song. Even the act of remembrance creases the truth.” This collection maintains this twisted lyrical style in a number of settings, with my only objection being that there are too many fantasy stories and not enough SF ones in there.
Short story collections in general have been pretty good this year – Spain’s Peruvian-Japanese author Fernando Iwasaki was a surprise discovery in Spanish-language fiction with his experimental collection of horror-tinged single-page or even single-paragraph stories Ajuar funerario (Funeral Attire), exploring and playing around with a myriad odd little hispanicisms related to funerals, ghosts and the dead, an obviously fruitful ground to play upon.
On the other hand, Mark Haddon’s collection The Pier Falls: And Other Stories is a brilliant pack of carnivorous stories that is an absolute must-read, just not, you know, when you’re feeling kinda down or possibly suicidal, ’cause they could just push you right over the edge. The titular story, and I’m beginning to see a pattern to this year’s recommendations and reviews, is something that should not work – an almost reporter-like account of the disaster as a pier unexpectedly crashes into the sea, without seeming protagonist or actual plot beyond all the death, destruction and aftermath, until you realize that it is not a single story, it is a dense package of micronarratives crammed under a single title, some of them lightly poignant, some deeply moving or disturbing.
Finally, I want to praise the quantum foam for the existence of Leonard Susskind. It is entirely possible that he’s got things completely bloody wrong with string theory, but his hypothesis that there are moderate-to-advanced level math-educated people interested in a quantum physics textbook that goes beyond empty, confused and misleading pedestrian metaphors about cats and boxes and delves full on into the math but without the assumption that you remember all the sodding linear algebra you studied twenty years ago in college, yet with the assumption that you can recall it, nay, even use it with enough prodding lead to the marvel of the book (and online course – best used coupled) that is Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum. After countless muddled pop-sci explanations, I can finally say I understand how to do quantum mechanics and I even understand a bit about what it means. Though, to be fair, first-year technical college physics left me unprepared to jump right in, and I had to flashback to the also highly recommendable first book in the series, Classical Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum, laying a much needed foundation for some of the concepts and physical ways of thinking that the second book then applies to quantum issues.
Posted on | December 31, 2016 | No Comments
It is always good when a good book series maintains the expected quality throughout its run, as was the case with this year’s seventh installment of Stross’ Laundry Files, Kloos’ continuing battle against the Lanky invaders, or Abercrombie’s foray into the short story world of First Law. Robert Jackson Bennett continued the Divine Cities series with a worthy sequel to one of the surprise wonders of 2014, and after the thoroughly mixed impressions of the first part, the second book of M. John Harrison’s Empty Space Trilogy right properly blew my socks off. But wonderful though they all are, there’s not much to say about them other than: “Jolly good, sir! Do carry on.”
Some of the other pickings do leave something to be said, though David Markson’s uniquely delightful Reader’s Block is such an exercise in the experimental faffing about of an aging, well-educated writer contemplating the writing of a novel through a series of wikipedian digressions and consciousness streams that it is both hard to write about, as well as hard to recommend – I loved it (though self-identification may have played a rather considerable role there), some other people also loved it, but would you? Hard to say.
Far easier to talk, for example, of Michael Flynn’s unconventional space opera The January Dancer. It is a book that, by all means, should not work – a pretentious pile of purplish keisersoziana constantly digressing from the main storyline of a discovered and promptly stolen alien artifact that keeps changing hands with numerous sidetracks that seem to go nowhere, taking its sweet time letting us know even who the bloody protagonist is, it nevertheless evokes a vivid, unusual (a rare feat nowadays) and deep future history populated by a cast of picturesque not-quite-pleasant characters chasing the titular and seemingly mundane dancing stone that, of course, has a few surprises up its sleeves. If you always wished Star Wars was a bit more LSD, this would hit the spot right and proper.
If, on the other hand, you are looking for something more down to earth (or rather, water) and scary, you might try John Langan’s highly praised The Fisherman, though it is entirely possible you will not be properly sated. It tells the story of a, well, fisherman, off in the wilds of Appalachia, who encounters an ancient supernatural threat to life and limb and whatnot. The problem this short novel has is that the framing modern-day narrative is like a proper fisherman’s tale, going on for way too long, and once we pop into the dazzling flashback story that occupies the middle part of the novel, the inevitable pop back out into present time is a bit of a let-down that just can’t take the hint that the party is over.
Trent Jamieson’s Day Boy, on the other hand, gets full marks, simply for taking a battered, bruised and sparklified old trope and infusing some fresh (dontsayblooddontsayblooddontsayblood) air into the good ole vampire story. It tells of a distant future when vamps have taken over the world, but instead of being manic bloodthirsty animals or lurkers in the shadow, they are good shepherds that take care of their flock, with the venerable institution of renfield being taken up by “day boys”, young lads of good standing, highly respected in the community for their work – through this frame, we follow the intrigue and machinations both of the world of the “masters”, as well as that of the “day boys” in a small, rural community and its surroundings.
This type of weirding displacement is also on hand in Marcel Theroux’s Far North, a proper postapocalyptic western set in, of all places, Siberia (and yes, there is a logical explanation). Makepeace the protagonist is a full-on sheriff, hat and horse and gun and all, keeping, well, peace in a village slowly disappearing as people seek their (mis)fortunes elsewhere in a bleak, freezing world of dwindling everything. Our protagonist keeps grappling with the conflicted urges of maintaining self-sufficient solitude and seeking out human companionship in a troubled, harsh world that mostly promises pain. Though about half way through the story took a turn I did not expect, shifting gears and – without giving too much away – shifting (sub)genres, Makepeace’s unique perspective made the read worthwhile and enjoyable throughout.
Posted on | December 30, 2016 | No Comments
Sitting down to recapitulate the year in books, I was honestly surprised to see how many I have read this year. Well, read or attempted to read, really, sometimes just flipping through an inane novella desperately attempting to be kooky and weird straight to the end to see if it gets better (it doesn’t), other times simply tossing the logorrheic brick painfully in need of a good editor on the DNF and WNF pile to be forgotten forever, brows twirling in surprise after having thoroughly enjoyed the author’s previous book. There weren’t too many such examples, but they did range far and wide, from classics people kept tsk-ing at me for, highly touted “new talent” that managed to induce death by yawnage, flaccid attempts at scientifictional pamphletting by someone who should know better, all the way to expectedly shitty books that should have been simple shitty guilty pleasures but somehow managed to fuck up a virtually unfuckuppable concept and thus excel in their shittiness.
Most of them I don’t really care about. I do, however, care when someone whose work I used to love starts pumping out these little… prose experiments, I guess, that initially sound like a good idea, but in fact deliver less and less with each new iteration. China Miéville is an author who either hits hard, or misses hard, but my latest “year in Miéville”, with Three Moments of an Explosion, followed by This Census-Taker and rounded off by The Last Days of New Paris was really one for empty and unengaging prose that is attempting… well, I’m not sure what. His writing was always political, always smart, and always tinkering with complex ideas, often with breathtaking results. However, this latest batch just seems uninspired, as if something drained all the life out of his work and just left pretty words pegged on top of “what if we cross concept X with concept Y” thought experiments written in a style that is by now so well-rehearsed as to have become a literary adjective.
On the other hand, there are phenomena I simply do not understand, such as Ted Chiang. He’s a decent enough writer – nice turn of phrase, a cute idea here and there. But all the hoo-hah over his work, all the awards, all the swooning even by people who are lightyears beyond him is leaving me mystified. I read The Lifecycle of Software Objects during the summer and found it… decent-ish. Forgettable and, well, forgotten – I had to re-read the synopsis just now to remind myself it was just a single novella, what it was about, and why it left me as cold as it did. Then, with the movie adaptation of the titular story from Stories of Your Life and Others, people once again started popping up left and right, praising his work as “the best ever”, and so, even though I should also have known better, I gave in and gave it a shot. The collection opens with a lovely story, albeit one hinging on a twist ending that I saw a mile away, possibly because I had a similar idea for a story setting, or possibly because we are both computer engineers dabbling in writing so our brainboxes tick similarly, but nevertheless, lovely story, sure. There were a few tiny gems in the collection, such as the poetic math-fiction of “Division By Zero”, but the titular story was problematic, not particularly interesting and not particularly original (for a much better treatment of a similar subject cf. last year’s The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts). To top it all off, the emotional tear-jerker moment read really crudely glued in there to, well, cause emotional engagement (for a much better treatment of a similar tear-jerking moment, cf. this year’s City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett). Some of the stories were boring rehashes of decades-old material (Understand – cf. Flowers for Algernon), some were (heh) underbaked sorta-kinda-steampunk with a religious bend that just went on too long (Seventy-Two Letters), while the final story may actually be pretty good, but I will never know, since after about half a dozen pages I found I could not continue for sheer brain-devouring boredom. All in all – farewell, Chiang, I doubt we’ll meet again.
Posted on | December 31, 2015 | No Comments
I 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.
You 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 fare, you will enjoy it immensely.
The 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.
Posted on | December 30, 2015 | No Comments
Kelly 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.
Four 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.
Ms 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.
Jesse 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.
Rounding 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.keep looking »