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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.

Bookworm 2015: The Disappointments

Posted on | December 22, 2015 | No Comments

Instead of a brutally good or brutally terrible book, the end of 2015 for me will be marked by an insanely horrible design decision by the staff of Goodreads. Out of the blue, they’ve decided they have to do something to “jazz up” the website, and among a series of other relatively poor design decisions, the “something” boiled down to “use a gray shade of the broken Merriweather font on a glaring white background”, making the website nauseating to read. As a former long-time web developer, I’ve made a fair number of accessibility-related blunders, but never in my career have I managed to cause actual physical pain and nausea to users, just through layout design. Even after almost 3000 mostly negative comments on the announcement, the GR team is refusing to back out and seems to prefer having the font to having actual users to read it.

On the other hand, the year in books wasn’t terribly exciting either. There was a lot of drama, there was a lot of hype, but very little actual quality. Most of what I’ve read and loved this year was not released in 2015, and most of the stuff I’ve expected eagerly proved to be a disappointment. Although some of the disappointments were also centuries old – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a book I’ve left on the to-read shelf for once I’m mature and ready enough to “truly understand” the most celebrated modern English language novel, proved to be about 500 pages of mind-numbingly boring and severely outdated whale minutia interspersed with 100 pages of fluffy plot that was shat on by the trivial ending.

Among the more contemporary fare the biggest disappointment, perhaps, is John Hornor Jacobs with his Foreign Devils. After the fascinating first book, with its phenomenal world-building and brilliant story, this penny-dreadful pulp sequel just felt like a lot of running back and forth with little purpose or meaning, and even less engagement. The thing is, I am disappointed and angry at Jacobs not because the book is terrible, but because it was just… okay. It is readable, there is a story there, but all that worldbuilding potential just seems wasted. Unlike, for example, Jean Christophe Valtat’s Luminous Chaos that carries the same burden of being the sequel to a brilliant, exciting and otherworldly steampunkish arctic spy adventure… that turned out to be a terrible, unreadable, unimaginative sequel I just couldn’t plod through.

Then again, with Tim Lebbon’s Predator: Incursion I had no big expectations. I was looking forward to a fun, guilty-pleasure romp through the Aliens/Predator universe, but here’s the thing; a Predator novel with the Yautja being unimpressive cannon fodder a la the Xenomorphs in the Aliens sentry gun scene… it just doesn’t work. They’re predators, it’s right there in the name, and Lebbon’s failing to adhere to this basic tenet of the franchise resulted in a curiously non-entertaining novel and thus, needless to say, I will not be reading further into this planned series.

Bookworm 2014: Triple A

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.

Jeff Vandermeer - AnnihilationAnnihilation, 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.

Jeff Vandermeer - AuthorityAuthority 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.

Jeff Vandermeer - AcceptanceAcceptance 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.

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