Two years ago I had a fantastically inventive and original idea — to report back on the best books I’d read in the preceding twelve months — and since then I’ve continued to use it to take the internet by storm, garnering much praise in private communications the details of which I won’t divulge here. Who am I to buck that trend, just because 2016 has been a colossal stinker in every other regard?
Start as you mean to go on, you cheat — as this isn’t one book but three: Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight and Europe in Winter, each of which I reviewed for SFFWorld.com earlier this year (at those links). Hutchinson whips up a rich mix of alternate reality cold-warrish thrills in a near-future, post-union Europe where the term “Balkanisation” doesn’t even come close to the degree of splintering that’s gone on. Worryingly prophetic, post-Brexit, and pre-all-the-other-xits-to-come. Following the evolution of the concept (and of the down-to-earth foodie main character) was a pleasure, and the possibility of more to come is good news for smart, if sadly insightful, contemporary science fiction.
The Book of the New Sun, Parts 2 – 4 Gene Wolfe (1981, 1982, 1983)
And to continue in that vein, I sank into books two, three and four of this magnificent piece of work after the first volume made it to last year’s Best Of. Definitely a case of one large story split into quarters, this was a strange, disorienting experience from start to finish but was in no way diminished for being a struggle to get through. Definitely a series I will need to read again, and I look forward to doing so.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has unshakeable appeal in sf, but also lends itself to (at least in how The Mainstream view matters) more literary interpretations. The argument over whether the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood are lowering themselves to science fiction or elevating a mere (spit as you speak it) genre to the status of Art isn’t interesting to me, but Station Eleven was. This is a theme that encourages reflective, characterful writing, and while this didn’t do anything very unexpected with the formulas, what it did it did well.
Station Eleven was the toast of 2014, but it wasn’t the only “literary” post-apocalyptic title to appear that year: more under the radar was this far less conventional offering. Again, comparisons to McCarthy and Atwood’s genre jaunts are fair — with its distinctive voice and a central confrontation with a collapsing ecology, this could be The Road kept standing still, and there are various reasons The Handmaid’s Tale might leap to mind. Yet IHW&YHC is its own thing: a duel or duet of broken-minded monologues, raw and exposed and defensive, and genuine.
I love The Western as a genre, even if most of my reading takes me elsewhere. This might be because, when I do dip in, I tend to follow the consensus of quality — and doing so I’m rarely disappointed. Added to (yes, him again) McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses and Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident as past favourites, now this: a phenomenal piece of writing in which the beauty of landscape delivers the harshest violence. Further proof that the most American of subject matters can bring out the best of the English language.
In fact I read both this and its (also wonderfully titled) sequel, A Deepness in the Sky, but although both are award-winners the second would only have made it to this list in the context of the first. AFUtD contains one of the most brilliant acts of alien invention in science fiction, so good that I refuse to clarify — but then it generally presents a wealth of genre high-concepts, all of them articulated fantastically well. That half the book follows juvenile protagonists via a matching YA tone took some getting used to, but I was hooked throughout.
2014 was obviously quite a period for me, even if I didn’t get around to what it offered for another year or more. Circumstance (and the nature of the text) made this a case of long-delayed completion — but I’ve a soft-spot for narratives-in-dialect so I was always going to return to it. This one meant I was publicly mumbling under my breath for months, and in all honesty I wasn’t totally satisfied with The Wake towards the end, but for much of it I was gripped, despite the challenge it posed.
I’ve got a habit of reading single author collections (and multi-author anthologies) as if they were novels, but it’s not always a wise choice as an author’s style (or a shared theme) can feel a bit samey even across different shorts, diminishing the pleasure. With Link’s collection I made an effort to break up the reading with other things, and I’m glad I did. If many of the stories were similarly weird and open-ended, all featured lovely writing, and the best — like the title piece — were just excellent.
Is it wrong of me to call Stephenson “a thinking man’s Dan Brown”? Probably. What this actually reminded me of was Theodore Roszak’s Flicker: a deep sinking into a niche of the world’s culture, a historical conspiracy thriller on a fairly startling scale, and not exactly a science fiction novel either (even though this won notable awards as such, presumably due to the author’s SF status). Like The Wake its ending didn’t totally satisfy me, this time for being so abrupt following such door-stopping length, but it was a fun, often fascinating read.
And I close by cheating once more. The first volume, Annihilation, was in my 2014 list, but it took me ages to get around to the remainder — I was gifted that rather gorgeous hardback edition of Authority in May, and my final prompting to buy Acceptance was the realisation that I ought to finish the series before giving the complete trilogy to anyone else for Xmas. Vandermeer’s readable prose leaves much deliberately obscure, and though the entire cast guard their emotions like the most vulnerable of weaknesses, this strange story is touching come the end.
So, is he done?
I’ve already managed to push this “top ten” to all of fifteen titles, but since I kept strictly to fiction above, some salutes to non-fiction below: I was inspired by Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence in terms of prose; Julian Baggini’s The Pig That Wants to be Eaten in terms of thought; Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other in terms of possibility; and, anticipating potential characters, Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (on the positive side) and Kessler, Burgess and Douglas’s Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives (on the negative (obviously)).
Speaking about my own writing for a moment, I was delighted to have a story published in Metaphorosis Magazine this year, which you can read for free here. And if you’re in the market for an ebook, rather than direct your attention solely toward my humble work, may I recommend this year’s SFFWorld.com anthology of map-related speculative fiction, YOU ARE HERE? Not only are there some great stories by other lovely people, but I provided one of the makeweights, and the cover art too!
And on that note…