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.