Monday, January 5, 2015

2014 Reads in Review, Part 4: Notable Re-Reads

I re-read quite a bit; thought I would make a plug for a few of these. A lot of book club selections were re-reads for me, which was lovely. Here's a bunch that didn't make the other lists.

  • “The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica” (1983)- John Calvin Batchelor
    • A strange, grim, lyric, philosophical novel. Alt-history wherein a huge number of international refugees eventually wind up attempting to survive in Antarctica and nearby islands. Draws heavily on Nordic & Christian mythology, attempts a long-form critique of charity & utilitarianism. Richly charactered, poetically written.
  • The works of J.R.R. Tolkien
    • I wind up returning to most of these at some point each year, usually uncovering some facet or angle I never noticed before. Thinking a lot about fate, foreshadowing, and doom this time around. As always, I find “The Silmarillion” strangely comforting, though I know it's not for all. His essay “On Fairy Stories” was a note of sanity for me in a year where I was thinking more than usual about the YA “controversy” and the perennial fantasy-versus-SF issues I have. I see his translation of “Beowulf” is finally available, paired with some commentary—his “Monsters and the Critics” analysis is well worth the read—have to pick that up.
  • The SF works of C.J. Cherryh
    • In researching my Wiscon paper, I wound up reading almost all her SF over a short period of time. I really can't recommend her enough. Reading through this time, things that struck me included just the general excellence of “Rimrunners” (1989)--although very nonstandard for military SF, it's probably my over-all favorite in that subgenre; it also showcases Cherryh's inordinate strength for pacing, point-of-view control, and psychological realism. On a different note, an issue I often have with Cherryh is her prudishness, basically—we're left to infer a lot of the sexuality in her works—so re-reading some of the standalone Merchanter novels I was struck by how concerned they are with sex.
  • “A Deepness in the Sky” (1999)- Vernor Vinge
    • Good stuff, stands the test of time, though perhaps over-long. Wonderfully fun alien spiders juxtaposed alongside a fairly dystopian human storyline; some interesting bits here on innate problems of Orwellian surveillance, ethics of inequality, and using basically induced savantism/autism.
  • “Solaris” (1961)- Stanislaw Lem
    • Another one I re-read trying to wrap my head around VanderMeer's “Southern Reach” trilogy—oddly, like the Strugatsky's “Roadside Picnic”, also a novel that was adapted by Tarkovsky. Solaris is a really brilliant piece of SF, heavily psychological, and kind of about the potentially futile/hubristic nature of scientific understanding.
  • “Out of the Silent Planet” (1938) & “Perelandra” (1943)- C.S. Lewis
    • Oh Lewis, I have such a fraught relationship with you. These first two novels of his “Space Trilogy” (“That Hideous Strength” is a different beast, long-winded, and I don't return to it as often) are probably his best-written fiction. Like the Narnia series, they're dealing with Christian themes; unlike Narnia, they're not hiding behind a deceptive shield of children's writing and allegory. Full of surprisingly rich and inventive ideas, they feel like Wells or Burroughs through a more overtly philosophical/theological lens.
  • "Snow Crash” (1992)- Neal Stephenson
    • Ha! What a ridiculously good novel. This is either cyberpunk at its absolute height, or just possibly a satire of the same—one really can't tell. Stephenson's exuberant, gonzo, metaphor-rich prose tackles a story of cyberspace and ancient Sumerian neurolinguistic viruses in a world where nation-states have broken down and been replaced by corporations. If you're up for some fairly chunky and wide-ranging academic reading, Julian Jaynes' “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” is an excellent companion piece (Stephenson acknowledges it as one of the main inspirations for the book, and I find myself referring to Jaynes' ideas with surprising frequencies in lots of discussions).
  • "Blood Music” (1985)– Greg Bear
    • Great, great book. Starts off looking rather like a Crichton-y medical/techno-thriller, and then ramps up to essentially a modernized “Childhood's End”. This novel is a great example of the difference between SF and the techno-thriller actually: willingness to follow a “what if” to someplace truly, truly weird and transformative.
  • “Sphere” (1987)- Michael Crichton
    • Aha, speaking of Crichton—this was yet another read in the “think about Annihilation” syllabus I put together for myself this year. “Sphere” (spoiler alert) is about a wish-granting alien spaceship on the bottom of the ocean. Your instinct to snort humorously is well-founded. In the writing, you can see both how Crichton raked in the cash—he's excellent at certain kinds of technical structuring, you can see why so many of his books (including this one) were adapted to film—and at the same time, how laughable it all is from a plausibility/science-fictional perspective. Key contrast with, say, “Blood Music”, is the way this super-radical thing is completely suppressed by the end, and the world continues as normal.
  • “Whipping Star” (1970)- Frank Herbert
    • I feel like a lot of people don't know Herbert outside of the “Dune” books, which is both understandable and kind of a bummer. He's generally less polished in his other novels, but also more energetic and inventive. “Whipping Star” is one of two novels set in the same universe, both featuring “saboteur extraordinnaire” Jorj McKie. Extremely weird, sort of humorous, and less legendary/epic-reading than “Dune”.
  • “The Scar” (2002) & “Iron Council” (2004)- China Mieville
    • Fast becoming perennial re-reads for me, these are both crazy-awesome, inventive, weird, fantastic, and also packing some pretty heavy political heat. Mieville's Bas-Lag stories are just overflowing with creativity; you're only getting the iceberg-tip of weird stuff going on, and his language matches the florid, over-the-top, often grotesque world. “Iron Council” is just effing glorious, angry, a freaking triumph of revolutionary critical writing in the format of New Weird at its best. It has this brief, occluded glimpse of what I think is Mieville's take on an anarchic utopia. “The Scar” is often advanced as the best Mieville to start with (I might go with the less-flamboyant “City and the City”), and I really like it. It has a lot to do with trauma and survival. This was a rough year for me—one of my closest friends died unexpectedly, and I nearly died in a bicycle accident—so I was looking to books for comfort even more than usual. The first book I wanted to read in the hospital was “The Scar”. It has this line that is maybe the most positive in all of Mieville, this notion that “scars are not injuries...A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”
  • “Stations of the Tide” (1990)- Michael Swanwick
    • This remains one of my favorite SF books of all time; actually, it's probably in my top 5 books of all time, period. Swanwick's work continues to be excellent, but for me none of them top this. As readers we are dropped into this world, much as the protagonist is, with very little explanation. And it's a fantastic world—a sort of New Orleans-influenced culture, about to be submerged under a massive cyclical flood. There are aliens (maybe). There are complex orbital and virtual environments. There might be magic? There's definitely a giant naked lady who's actually the agent of the AI that devoured Earth. A river of crabs, each bearing a bobbing brilliant orchid, parts around a massive ocean liner broken on dry land. There's lots of very queer things going on. The narrative, while always tied closely to our protagonist, splits and branches unexpectedly, diving into layers of represented stories. This novel, while totally enjoyable as a straightforward read, is also incredibly thematically rich, interrogates the categories of SF/F and how we tell stories, and jumps sideways to touch on issues ranging from family dynamics to population genetics to reality television. Hallucinogenic, surreal, magical, and at the same time maybe a bit of truly hard SF. Read it.

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