Monday, January 2, 2017

2016's best reads

I managed to read 89 books in 2016, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 8 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 80. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads. As I've stated repeatedly, the system of equivalence wrought by Goodreads' scoring arrangement is yet another manifestation of capitalism's desire to impose a price upon everything, up to and including works of art. Though even without this organization via score, I would still consider these objects deserving of consideration for best-of. Every year I perform a pantomime of hand-wringing over year-end lists. This year, I shan't bore my reader with such dissembling. Instead, here are some thoughts on the year's reading.

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
Silver Screen by Justina Robson
Software by Rudy Rucker
Deception Well by Linda Nagata
Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski
253 by Geoff Ryman
The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock
The Queen of the Swords by Michael Moorcock
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Last Days by Brian Evenson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

As per usual, science fiction possesses my heart, or at least, the bulk of it. There is room, scant but still room, for horror and a touch of fantasy. This year, as in recent years, I've branched out from my usual comfortable hovel of science fiction, and it was to my surprise, worth the excursion. Both Michael Moorcock and Kai Ashante Wilson were exquisite discoveries and with only two novellas, Wilson rocketed to the top of my "writers to watch" list for the next few years. Similarly, Moocock's giant oeuvre whispered to me and I ended up picking up a good chunk of his works. Expect to see more Moorcock in 2017. I discovered writers new to me, such as Matthew M. Bartlett and Brian Evenson, and kept working at writers I'd thought worth keeping with, such as Joan Slonczewski and Linda Nagata. In each of those cases, I thought the first book in the series was okay but the second was a shocking improvement. The Slonczewski was a fantastic slow read which worked thanks to its steady accumulation of details. The Nagata was stupendous for its abandonment of accessibility: the plot is exceedingly intricate and I had problems following it, a positive in my books.

If I were to pick a single work or author to highlight for the year, I would have to go with Gene Wolfe, the author I read the most in 2016. I wish I could say it was Ali Smith or Octavia Butler or a writer who isn't a conservative Catholic, but alas, once I "got" Wolfe's specific style of obfuscation and intricacy, I was sold. I finished The Book of the New Sun in March, read the fifth volume in December, and then barrelled through the first half of The Book of the Long Sun before the end of the year. I also managed to squeeze in his novel of three parts, The Fifth Head of Cerberus just under the wire before New Year's, thus putting my total Wolfe books for the year at 6.

The allure of Wolfe comes from intersecting vectors of interest for me: science fiction, postmodernism, beautiful allusive writing, and a density of narrative which rewards rereading. His work with genre fascinates me. The Book of the New Sun presents itself as fantasy but past the surface, the superficial signifiers of the fantasy genre, the quintet is really far future science fiction, a dying Earth story a la Jack Vance. Wolfe's skill is the slow, achingly slow unfolding of an "objective" reality counter to the protagonist's belief. Normally, especially in genre fiction, this would take the form of revealing to the protagonist a secret history, a real history. For example, revealing to Luke Skywalker or any other chosen one, that they are indeed, the chosen one and that they were placed in their meager circumstances on purpose. The Book of the New Sun looks backwards: the protagonist is chronicling the adventures from a position in the future, so instead of the reveal having shocking implications, he takes it for granted the audience is already on board. For example, Severian remarks very casually, in an offhand comment, that the Moon is green. It's dropped into the narrative without any ceremony and could be easily missed by a reader without patience. It's not until a second time when Severian asks a character from another planet if their "Lune" is also green that the detail persisted with me. I guessed then, the Moon had been terraformed in the time when Severian's and Earth's ancestors fled the planet in their starships, leaving behind a population sinking backwards into a pre-industrial era. Now that spaceflight is out of everybody's grasp, the Moon has gone completely wild, becoming a satellite green enough to be seen from Earth.

To me, this detail represents everything I love about Wolfe's writing. Some might roll their eyes at my naivety, but to find science fiction so demanding of careful attention, such excellent economical prose, and an obvious intelligence is rare. I will happily read his greatest hits and even minor hits just to be rewarded with intelligent and demanding fare. Wolfe is not perfect, though; I wish Wolfe's gender politics weren't so infuriatingly retrograde and his political imagination so conservative. No matter how artful or so clever his tapestries of genre, at the heart of the Solar Cycle is a concern for power and men, with women being either pawns or villains (often both at the same time).

For 2017, I would like to return to a sort of gender parity I'd balanced in the beginning of the year. I would like to continue with  Slonczewski, Nagata, and Katherine Ann Goonan (did I mention I reviewed her book for the SF Mistress blog?) and hopefully, I'll review them for the aforementioned blog. I'd also like to continue with Octavia Butler; I've been reading them slowly as I don't want to finish them all too fast. I'd like to finally tackle some N. K. Jemisin, some more Pat Cadigan, more Justina Robson, more Melissa Scott, and definitely more Elfriede Jelinek (I still can't get over The Piano Teacher). I'd also like to finish off some series I've started, such as The Solar Cycle, Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light, Lumley's Necroscope, M. John Harrison's Light trilogy. I also have a boatload of Paul McAuley and Adam Roberts to read. 2017 looks to be promising for science fiction for me. Who needs new releases from James S. A. Corey when I have so many good books to get around to.

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