Tardiness comes in direct proportion to chaos. The year ended and all was in flux.
However, reading goes on.
I did not finish nearly as many books in 2016 as I tried to. At least, not other people’s books. I did finish drafts of two of my own. My desk, at the moment, is clear, and maybe I can do a better job in 2017 of keeping abreast here.
A good deal of my science fiction reading was pretty much for the reading group I host at Left Bank Books. That group affords me opportunity and motivation to read novels I might not otherwise get to. So I reread Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination for the first time in three decades, but I also read The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time ever. I do not regret the delay. It is a mature novel, with a great deal my younger self may well have missed. As to the former, it came very close to not holding up. I had forgotten (if I ever realized it this way) just how brutal a novel it is, and not just in the character of Gully Foyle. Bester’s achievement way back in the Fifties remains remarkable for its unyielding insistence on a fragmented, painful, chaotic, and historically consistent future.
I also reacquainted myself with Tiptree, in the form of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. It seems fitting in this period of reassessment and revolution, when the face of science fiction is—has—changed and brought forth a volatile reaction to that change. Tiptree was doing much of what is being so rancorously challenged within the field today, but as she was a singular voice and not a “trend” she provoked different challenges then while becoming accepted generally as a brilliant writer and a jewel in the crown of SF stars.
I also reread (for the first time since it came out) Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which I reviewed in the previous post. I was much too inexperienced a reader the first time to appreciate everything Silverberg was doing, so I probably forgot the book as soon as I finished it.
It is true that some books must be “grown into”—I am currently rereading Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble On Triton for the book group and realizing that, while I read it eagerly the first time, I probably missed almost everything important about. Likewise with another reread, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is ostensibly a novel about colonialism. I say “ostensibly” but that does not mean it isn’t. It very much is about colonialism, all three of the novellas which comprise the whole. But it is as much about how we colonize ourselves, sometimes to our loss, as it is about colonizing foreign soil, in this case another world with a native population that strives to adapt but may have found in the end their only options were extinction or counter-colonization. As always, Wolfe’s subtlety is rigorously slippery, his points less direct, corrosive of expectation.
Titan Books has rereleased Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Chronicles, a story cycle that is the very definition of indirect. Moorcock took as his template the Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, et al—and displaced them into a near future chaos in the form of his “hero” Jerry Cornelius, who wants to save the world only to resurrect his dead sister so they can be together. The prose are rife with Sixties hip, but not so overwhelmingly anachronistic that the novels aren’t just as readable now as they were then. The response to them is perhaps necessarily altered and certainly the themes play out differently. Moorcock may have been the grown-up in the room at the advent of New Wave. He did go on to write some marvelously rich books after these.
I finished Ann Leckie’s delightfully subversive Ancillary trilogy. I need to do a full review soon. Treat yourself.
A smattering of other SF titles I can recommend whole-heartedly: Lavi Tidhar’s Central Station; Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants; Carter Sholz’s Gypsy; Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
And Nisi Shawl’s wonderful Everfair. An alternate history steampunk done the way steampunk ought to be done. I owe it a full review, but let me say here that this is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time.
I read two China Mieville books this year, one very good. This Census Taker I have to count as a failure. It has good writing fascinating bits, but failed to come together the way I’ve come to expect from Mieville. The other, newer one, is The Last Days of New Paris, which is excellent. This pair allowed me to understand that one of the primary passions Mieville indulges in his work is cities. His best work portrays a city as a complete character. This Census Taker lacked that.
Of the non science fiction read this year, I did Moby-Dick with my other reading group. I resisted doing this book. I’ve never liked it. I find it turgid, convoluted, often opaque. There is also a darkness to it that can be suffocating. Over several months we tackled it, dissected it, ran through various analyses. I conclude that it is a superb work, fully deserving of its reputation. It is A great American novel if not The American Novel, because America is its subject, though it takes place on a whaling ship far at sea. It is not a flattering picture, though, displaying throughout the contradictions, hypocrisies, and shortcomings of the then young nation which continue to plague us. It does this brilliantly.
I still don’t like it. I find little pleasure in the actual reading. That, as they say, is my problem.
A colleague and coworker, Kea Wilson, published her first novel, We Eat Our Own. I commend it. I reviewed it here.
A novel that straddles the genre boundaries somewhat that caused some controversy upon its initial publication is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. This is a post-Arthurian quest story with much to say about memory and community and the price of vengeance.
This was a big year for nonfiction.
Robert Gleick’s new tome, Time Travel: A History is an exceptional soliloquy on the concept, science, and cultural use of time travel, beginning with Wells and covering both the scientific realm and the popular fiction realm, showing how they have played off each other and how the idea has evolved and worked through our modern view of the universe and our own lives. Previously in the year I’d read his magnificent biography of Richard Feynman, Genius. Gleick is a great explainer and a fine craftsman.
As well, Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons About Physics. They are brief, they are accessible, they are to be enjoyed. And, along the same lines, Void by James Owen Weatherall, about the physics of empty space. It’s far more fascinating than it might sound.
I can recommend Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is a history of the world from the viewpoint of the Orient. The shift in perspective is enlightening. Along the same lines I read Charles Mann’s 1491, which was eye-opening and thought-provoking—and in some ways quite humbling.
I also read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, especially in the wake of what I think I can safely call the most surprising election result in recent history. This book is a study of the right-wing culture that has developed in many startlingly contradictory ways. I believe this would be worth reading for anyone trying to make sense of the people who continually vote in ways that seem to make no sense—and also for those who do vote that way just so they might understand what it is about their movement that seems so incomprehensible to many of their fellow citizens.
I read a few short of 50 books in 2016 cover to cover. I will be reviewing some of them in the future.
Here’s hoping for a good year of reading to come.