Monday, December 30, 2019

Notable 2019 Reads & Re-Reads

As is my wont, I'm wrapping up the year by going back over what I've read. This was a pretty great year, book-wise, with a couple really outstanding new releases.

I didn't read or write quite as much as I'd planned this year: big life events (e.g. "marriage") and an occasionally-overpowering work schedule. That said, have ventured a bit more seriously into reviewing, and am working myself up to a few more serious projects.

My book-club schedule was also a bit more modest this year, but it's great to see them all going strong. Chicago's bookstore and lit scene continue to impress; the Chirbies were particularly good.

Wiscon was lovely, empowering, and thought-provoking, as usual. I didn't get to many SFF events in the latter half of the year, but caught some great stuff early on--including Maria Dhavana Headley on Beowulf, Nisi Shawl on Octavia Butler, Three Literary Perspectives on The Handmaid's Tale, and loads of content around One Book, One Chicago's selectionDo Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?including a great panel at DePaul.

Anyways, here's my list, and some brief notes. Happy reading!




Meander, Spiral, Explode
Jane Alison (2019)
I have this vivid memory of one of my writing professors drawing out the traditional "rising tension, climax, denouement" on a whiteboard, and then saying: well, that's rather like sex with a man, isn't it? Alison's highly-readable theory book starts with the same premise, and wonders what other metaphors we could have to think about how narratives are constructed. Thought-provoking and conversational; as with most theory books of this kind your mileage will be better if you know the specific works invoked.

Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Finally got around to reading this. I...definitely hated it? I started and stopped an essay on this for months trying to work through what I thought, will have to finish that someday. I generally dismiss the "literary vs. genre" fiction divide, but here's a work where those two impulses actively sabotage each other.

The Water Knife
Paolo Bacigalupi (2015)
Wow is this ever depressing. Well-written, scarily plausible novel set in the near-future American southwest, where climate change and unchecked gangster capitalism have made a living hell. Too real. Left me feeling a little sick. So, good, I guess?

Lent
Jo Walton (2019)
Did a full review of this for the Chirb. It's really good!Historical fiction with time-travel-loop structure; I like Walton best when she can combine gentle daily life with deep philosophical musing, which is on full display here.

Alliance Rising
C.J. Cherryh & Jane S. Fancher (2019)
Cherryh returns to the Alliance-Union universe for the first time since 2009's Regenesisand as Regenesis is an odd direct sequel to Cyteen (1988), it's more like 3 decades since Cherryh directly engaged with this universe. Alliance Rising is weird, in a couple ways, and I say this as someone pretty deeply Cherryh-obsessed. The writing is not so much a departure as a expansion-to-exclusion of one particular internal-expository style that Cherryh usually uses more thriftily. There's shockingly little that happens, or is even said, in this novellots of narrative summation, lots of quasi-stream-of-consciousness internal contemplation. Both of those are things Cherryh excels at, but they're usually balanced more with other elements. The other weird thing about this novel is where it fits in her larger future historyit slots so tightly in the timeline between other works, that an informed reader has very little imaginative wiggle room. It's hard to care too deeply about the Hinder Star stations, because we know, very clearly, what their hopes and dreams will come to, in just a few short years or decades after this novel closes. Made me reflect on prequel-peril and expanded-universe woes generally. I'm still hopeful to see what Cherryh's doing nextthere were hints way back when that the Alliance-Union and Compact storylines might actually be about to merge, which would be wild, but that might be something left to the imagination.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others
Charlie Jane Anders (2017)
Wow this is great! Short story collection, really showing Anders at her bestabsurdist, creative, funny, heartfelt, and playing around with big ideas.

Exhalation
Ted Chiang (2019)
Only the second collection from the author who is, pretty plausibly, the greatest living short SF writer, this is a must-read. Standouts include the title story, which makes entropy an emotionally-relatable concept, much as "Story of Your Life" did with time-reversible physics. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling" do a phenomenal job of investigating near-future tech questions with a human angle. Phenomenally good all around.

Radicalized
Cory Doctorow (2019)
A collection of 4 novellas, all superb. This might actually be my favorite Doctorow book to date, and I quite like him generally. The stories variously investigate the proliferation of DRM, systematic racism in America through the lens of Superman, and the limits of doomsday preppingbut it's the title story that shook me the most, about the development of a terrorist organization targeting medical-pharmaceutical-political complex. It's a scary look at how online radicalization works, and what's really scary is less how plausible it is and more how it leaves you feeling, "gee, this actually might be a good idea."

Sun of Suns
Karl Schroeder (2006)
Schroeder is one of those writers I always want to get into a bit more. Sun of Suns was good fun, not earth-shattering, but scratched an itch. Really seems like a vastly more competent and expanded retelling of Niven's The Integral Treesa human civilization in a massive zero-gee gaseous sphere, with lots of biological and technological developments. Fun romp with fun science.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours
Helen Oyeyemi (2016)
Wonderful collection! Not quite sure how to describe it generically; reminded in equal parts of Kelly Link and Jose Cortazar, and Oyeyemi has a distinct voice. Magical realism and absurdism, really lovely.

Shadow of the Torturer
Gene Wolfe (1980)
I've had The Book of the New Sun on my list forever, finally made a crack at it. IT DID NOT GO WELL. This is blindingly dense, and while I won't accuse it of being nonsensical, the actual plot is highly obtuse. Scores of folks leapt to elegant defense when I voiced my feelings about it, so I'll probably try to get through the whole thing again sometime, but I haven't read something that felt like so much work for so little reward since taking a crack at Heidegger. I also think I might have an empathy gap with itthe main character tortures and kills people just as like, his job, without knowing why, and so I have a hard time being invested in that particular character's story without a lot more reasons than I'm given.

The Silmarillion
J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien & Guy Gavriel Kay, 1977)
Was I working on something academic when I reread it this year, or just needed something comforting? Oh right, it was for a Wiscon panel I was on, "60 Elves in 70 Minutes". You know that saying "comedy is just tragedy, but faster?" That panel was enormous fun, with the three of us doing a whirlwind tour of the book primarily targeted at folks who are interested in Tolkien but unlikely to read it. The Silmarillion is the best!

Perihelion Summer
Greg Egan (2019)
Very nice novella. Explores global warming with an interesting twistcosmic event changes Earth's orbital mechanics slightly, leading to huge changes. The framing lets Egan think about the necessity of urgent adaptation without the complex of blame and denial attending our fossil-fuel-driven reality. It's still super-hard! Mostly takes place at sea, with a small group who are figuring out how to make scalable, sustainable, subsistence sea-farming viable. What I found most overall impressive about this is how it emulates but subverts a lot of post-apocalyptic survival narrativesparticularly one big twist when there was clearly a violent solution, and Egan takes a different path. He doesn't hit you over the head with it, but it's clear that he's aware of the dangers of ecofascism. I frequently compare Egan to Chiang, but there's a strong touch of KSR here, and I was also reminded of one of my favorite obscure climate books, John Calvin Batchelor's The People's Republic of Antarctica.

Two Serpents Rise
Max Gladstone (2013)
Had been meaning to continue the Craft sequence, after quite enjoying Three Parts Dead (and Gladstone's online/con presence). This is a very good, enjoyable. Urban fantasy in a pretty elaborate secondary world; this one more explicitly extrapolated from existing cultures (Mesoamerican); still uses a lot of fun legal/financial framing for the magic system. Bonus points for non-obnoxious parkour inclusion.

A Memory Called Empire
Arkady Martine (2019)
Debut novel, which I reviewed at length on Positron. Very very good! Space opera, but focused on the political/interpersonal in the best kind of way. I felt like it dropped the ball a bit on exploring the freshest-feeling of its inventions (the memory-encoding tech), but more than made up for elsewhere. Nuanced critique of empire is definitely having a moment in SFF, and this is a good entry.

The Black Tides of Heaven & The Red Threads of Fortune
Jy Yang (2018)
Twin novellas (see what I did there), starting off a series. Pretty enjoyable; I wasn't blown away. Fantasy, mostly Imperial Chinese inspiration, some good stuff with gender.

Excession
Iain M. Banks (1996)
A weakness in Banks' novels is that the human stories often strike me as both nihilistically despairing and narratively irrelevant; this one's no different, but it takes up a much smaller percentage of the book. The Mindsthe AIs that run the drones, ships, and stations of the Cultureare the central players here, making this easily my favorite Culture novel so far. (Player of Games is also rad.) The "Outside Context Problem" feels like an idea that more people should know about.

Permutation City
Greg Egan (1994)
A flawed but haunting and brilliant novel. Way ahead of the curve in thinking about information technology, mind uploading, digital sentience. There's like 3 or 4 exponential extrapolation ramp-ups in here, and it's a thrill to read.

The Graveyard Book
Neil Gaiman (2008)
Every time I go to Los Angeles I'm super-ready to hate the whole experience, and then I wind up absolutely loving it. Reading Gaiman is always kinda like that for me. The guy does know how to writebut after I'm away from it for a minute, I find myself wondering what's solid down underneath the aesthetics. Anyway Graveyard Book is charming and delightful. I appreciated the understated classic monster trio.

House of Shattered Wings
Aliette de Bodard (2015)
First novel of Bodard's I've read, have quite enjoyed her shorter fiction. This was fun, though I wasn't blown away by it. Set in Paris after a disastrous supernatural war, featuring fallen angels, dragons, and more. A common complaint I have for these kind of set-ups is that it doesn't really engage with theology (or the political/social implications of theology), which like if you're going to have real angels & Lucifer & so forth, what's the deal. The punk vibe and the Vietnamese characters/mythology felt a lot more lively, but we don't get overmuch of them.

Phoresis
Greg Egan (2018)
Truly, I love this book. One very specific book-hunger I get is for the Hal Clement-style "use SF to very concretely explore a physics idea, bonus points for friendly aliens", and this is that in spades. Aliens on a small icy planet with a nearly-identical moon have to figure out how to get to said moon, using a high level of scientific rigor but relatively low tech. Really satisfying and fun, perfect for novella-length. As Egan did in the Orthogonal books, also does a good job of building in a little bit about how sex and biological realities impact individuals and society. Andmaybe it's just me, but I doubt itdoes a great job at drawing but not over-hammering the parallels to climate change on this planet, and our need to form consensus and take action as a society.

Infomocracy
Malka Older (2016)
Fun, political-thought-experimentally cyberpunk, with healthy doses of action and just enough cool tech. Characters were pretty fun.

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson (1959)
JEEZ this book is good. The writing is just...superlative. Unsettling, just the right amount of ambiguity, atmospheric, deft at changing tones. I get why it's been adapted multiple times, but it also kind of makes me want to tear my hair outadding anything more here is just bound to be less.

The Tea Master & the Detective
Aliette de Bodard (2018)
This is pretty good. Sherlock riff set in Bodard's Xuya universe. Great/weird character development, not straining anything by nodding too hard at Holmes, and the setting (weird space opera with non-Eurocentric culture) is superb.

Surface Detail
Iain M. Banks (2010)
Another Culture novel. Lots of viewpoints in this one, surrounding a "War in Heaven" in which various civilizations are arguing over the continued existence of virtual Hells. Pretty complex & often deceptive plotting, very imaginative, and is a bit too sadistic overall for me. The epilogue reveal that one of the characters is connected to another Culture novel did zero for me. Overall I enjoyed this novel just fine, but this was a year of seeing the limits on how much I like Banks at the actual book (as opposed to idea) level.

Autobiography of Red
Anne Carson (1998)
Finally got around to reading this, have been meaning tomostly out of a larger desire to Read Everything Which Adds Depth to Samatar's Olondrian novels. I enjoyed this: novel-in-verse, playing around with mythic fragments.

Dreyer's English
Benjamin Dreyer (2019)
What a freaking treat. Laugh-out-loud energy, and genuinely useful for writers/readers/editors, highly recommended.

Friday Black
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brunyah (2018)
Wow this is a great collection. Short stories that dip into magical realism, genre conventionsKelly Link territory, now that I think about itbut using those approaches to really brutally confront issues of race in America. Darkly funny, clever, occasionally sweet, and above all just smart and incisive. Highly, highly recommended.

Unholy Land
Lavie Tidhar (2018)
Fun, gently surreal novel about alternate universes revolving around different versions of the Israeli state. The novel's starting reality is one in which the "Uganda Plan" to situate Israel in Eastern Africa was successful, but our protagonistwho's an alternate version of Tidhar himselfsoon encounters bleed-over from other realities. The novel leans a little too heavily into some meta-conventions without explaining them (you'll need to know at least a bit about Tidhar's work, and pulp detective stories, for a few bits to work), but it's also a fairly quick read, doesn't bog down. The visions of alternate worlds are the main strength herebetter, worse, stranger than our ownwrapped around the twin issues of Israel as persecuted and persecutor.

The Marrow Thieves
Cherie Dimaline (2017)
YA, dystopian, quite good. Near-future where most people have lost the ability to dream, leading to widespread (if thinly-sketched) societal breakdown. Indigenous peoples can still dream, and are being hunted. This book had some issues at plot-logistic levels, but was very enjoyable the closer it hewed to its YA protagonists; has some elements of both climate disaster and magic mixed in. Grimly plausible at some levels, and specifically called out the Canadian Indian residential school history.

Behind the Throne
K.B. Wagers (2016)
I've been trying not to pan stuff, but this was a rough read! Space opera, matriarchal society, I did not enjoy.

The City in the Middle of the Night
Charlie Jane Anders (2019)
This was great and I loved it! The basic premise has a lot of very classic-sf-feeling elementsplanet with unusual characteristics (tidally locked), generation ships, dystopian government, unique aliensbut the execution feels very modern. I found the way the story works here really refreshing, although I also understand why some folks I know were frustrated with itI read it as a lot of trope-subverting at the plot level. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Greg Egan
Karen Burnham (2014)
UI's "Modern Masters of Science Fiction" series is a real treat, looking at authors' entire bodies of workthey're set up to provide an overview of the entire bibiliography, but also add context and highlight important themes and concerns. Primarily breadth, but with enough depth to give a feel for where you might want to read or think more about the author. Anyway, this one was very good; I was in a bit of an Egan mood this year, and he's prolific enough that it was useful and interesting to have Burnham's take on his career thus far as a whole.

Blackfish City
Sam J. Miller (2018)
This is great! Post-climate-catastrophe, floating city, refugee crisis, tech-telepathy with orcas and polar bears. I loved the mash-up of different cultures, the vibrancy of the city, and the way gender identity was handled. Full of ideas big and small, loads of action. Well done.

Circe
Madeline Miller (2018)
Big ol' "meh" from me on this one. Greek myth retelling, I'm just...not sure why? It was fine, the language was occasionally beautiful in an ornamental way, but the story felt uninspiredworthwhile to point out that the gods are jerks if you didn't already know, and brought a woman's viewpoint to the fore in a typically-patriarchal tale, but it doesn't spin the tale in any particularly interesting direction.

Planetfall
Emma Newman (2015)
What a weird novel! I liked the protagonist and the way that OCD/PTSD was handled; the core story is very strangetravel to another star, looking for (and finding?) God on the advice of interstellar flower messages? All of the plot hinges on weird decisions and cover-ups in ways I didn't love. Left me with lots of questions...and since the sequels are actually prequels, I'm guessing they're not answered.

Capitalist Realism
Mark Fisher (2009)
Super-rad, everybody read this please.

Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson (2012)
This was great, really enjoyed it. Present-day-ish cyberpunk in a key similar to Doctorow's Little Brother, set in a fictional Middle Eastern country, with a supernatural layer of djinn thrown into the mix. Very well paced and plotted, a fun read.

The Power
Naomi Alderman (2016)
Decidedly mixed feelings about this one. The core ideawomen develop a power that gives them physical superiority over menis rich enough, and the novel has some interesting characters and dynamics. But, I was left feeling like there were way too many plot/world-building holes, the whole thing is bizarelly cis-normative, the framing is too pat/cute, and, I think my biggest complaint, it seems to think that there's a simple and straightforward connection between power and injustice. The assumption is that gendered violence and injustice lies simply in physical power dynamics, ignoring all cultural, social, even biological factors. The "revenge" section of this story feels totally fine, but it's the larger assumption that women will start acting exactly like the worst parts of the patriarchy, given some superpowers, is both simplistic and a bummer.

Semiosis
Sue Burke (2018)
This is a very fun read! Well, a little grim for a while, but fun overall. Human colony on another planet mostly fails, bounce back, form a partnership with sentient plants. Lots of great botany stuff, and lots of musing on peaceful/symbiotic relationships in the face of internal and external threats. It's a very classic kind of set-up, told very simply, but the range of time (several generations) and scope of ideas is grand. Lot of weird parallels with Planetfall, which I might not have noticed if I hadn't read them so close together.

A Stranger in Olondria
Sofia Samatar (2013)
One of my favorite books of all time, and we used it in my wedding this fall. Gorgeous, deep, sad.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity
A. Lee Martinez (2016)
Did not love this! Comedy is hard, and this didn't hit it for me! Whedon-y, Douglas Adams-y. Stakeless.

The Priory of the Orange Tree
Samantha Shannon (2019)
Really resisting the urge to pan this hard. I did not like it, but your mileage may vary. It basically wraps together all that I dislike about traditional epic fantasy in one over-large package. It's nice that women are central in this world, but that's about the only positive thing I can say about it. Dubious plot, leans way into thinly renamed cultural appropriation instead of actual worldbuilding.

Children of Ruin
Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019)
Good fun! It's trying to do a little too much. It's the sequel to Children of Time, which was already doing quite a lota generation starship story, and a multi-generation evolution-of-intelligent-spiders story, and let's raise a glass to that becoming a genre, please. Anyway Children of Ruin follows an expedition of AI, humans, and spiders looking for more life (and other Earthly descendants), finds a system inhabited by both uplifted octopuses and a deadly native organism. My only complaint with this is that there's a little too much going on to let some of the bigger ideas breathe. In particular, Tchaikovsky's notion of how the octopus intelligence works is really intriguing, and could have been enough novelty for one book, with three very distinct elementsCrown, Reach, and Guisethat work in parallel. It's one of the best alien psychologies I've encountered, highly recommended for those interested in theory of mind. A very fun (though busy) novel.

Children of Blood and Bone
Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
Fantasy YA that draws on Yoruba culture. It was a pretty good read, but didn't really stick in my head beyond "decent YA with magic based on African traditions".

Empress of Forever
Max Gladstone (2019)
One of the most fun reads this year. Big honking space fantasythe literary tradition of planetary romances, but I was most reminded of things like Saga and the Mass Effect series. Elon-Musky billionaire inventor is yanked into a far-future interstellar conflict, assembles a crew of space pirate queens, kung-fu technomage monks, nano-shape-shifters and more. A real romp with a slightly episodic nature, very imaginative and wonder-filled, spritely and sometimes humorous writing. Recommended.

The Bird King
G. Willow Wilson (2019)
Kind of magical realism set within historical fiction. Enjoyable read, although I thought it had a few stumbles at the plot levelbut the writing is quite lovely, and some of the characters/relationships are great. I would have loved to see more of the main magical conceita cartographer who can modify reality by making maps, which reminded me elliptically of Hutchinson's Europe booksand the novel might have clicked faster for me if I'd been familiar with the myths and poems it's playing with. Still, definitely enjoyedand did not expect to run into one of my favorite characters from Alif the Unseen. Also just lovely for introducing me more to a fascinating aspect of European history, the centuries-long Islamic rule in Iberia. The more I reflect on it, and after hearing Wilson talk a bit at Wiscon about this, just kind of wild how much that's been erased from popular Euro-centric historical memory.

The Iron Dragon's Mother
Michael Swanwick (2019)
A return to one of my favorite fictional worlds, and marks a sort-of trilogy for Swanwick, I think his first. The Iron Dragon books explore a Faerie that is a kind of mirror universe to ours, where a variety of mythic and magical traditions have gone through their own industrial revolutions. Blends fantastic elements and fairly gritty realism in interesting waysSwanwick's fantasy work sometimes strikes me as kind of converse to Mieville's Bas-Lag. As with most of Swanwick's work, the blurb doesn't quite match the discourseSwanwick is tangential, looping out on strange side plots and ideas that are often the most memorable. The Iron Dragon's Mother continues to flesh out and critique this world and its power structures, and has a wonderfully strong thread about death and aging.

The Breath of the Sun
Isaac R. Fellman (2018)
I am so incredibly thankful I discovered this bookonce more in debt to the folks at Think Galactic. This is one of those gems that I might have just never encountered, a hypothetical tragedy that underscores how good this is. The Breath of the Sun has been haunting me in the best way. Set in a secondary world that's not too wildly different from ours, it has lots to do with mountain climbing, with friendship and betrayal, with figuring out where you stand in a culture that can't really contain you. Fellman's writing is impossibly assured, conveying an immersion and a sense of verisimilitude that would be astonishing in a non-fantastic work, and is incredible in this one. There's also a lot of meta-textual stuff going on: the book you're reading feels like a draft of an in-world work, with excerpts from journals and other works, and a relationship that you primarily discover through footnotes from a proofreader. A deeply engaging, transformative novelcomparisons to Le Guin are well-earned, though more at the level of impact and affect than actual writing (although if you wanted "just the feeling of Genly & Estraven on the ice, expanded to a novel", this is pretty close). This a book I know I'll be re-reading and recommending for years to come.

Hexarchate Stories
Yoon Ha Lee (2019)
Collection set throughout the same universe as Ninefox Gambit, mostly following those characters. I really loved that this collection was able to play up the gentle & quotidian sides of that series, which are present but buried under a lot of plot, surreality, and violence in those books. I was weirdly turned off by the book's actual structure, which put the author commentary directly after each story. Definitely not recommended as an entryway into Lee's work.

This Is How You Lose the Time War
Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (2019)
I get so excited just thinking abou this that it's a little hard to write coherently about it. I heard El-Mohtar & Gladstone read an excerpt from this a couple years ago, and it was immediately apparent that this was something specialI was clenching my jaw about it from then until the release. As an aside to the work itself, I think this is also the first time I've been this excited and aware of a book, pre-publicationfascinating to watch the authors, publishers, advance readers and more online as the whole thing gathered momentum. But, the book itself: epistolary time-travel romance between two agents on opposite sides of a time war. Endlessly fun, snarky, sexy, real, the writing is densely allusory, clever, and inventive. It has great mouthfeelit sounds great spoken, it has sweetness and tartness and bitterness, smooth bits and jagged bits. A book so good I occasionally just have to yell about it, even now.

Desdemona and the Deep
C.S.E. Cooney (2019)
Rich, lush novella, a dark whimsical fairy tale. Some serious Goblin Market vibes. I found this unsatisfying in ways I can't quite pin down; its dreamlike nature is its main strength, but like a dream it also lacks clear structure or agency. A slightly longer length would have served the plot & characters betteror, conversely, more modest stakes and a smaller cast might have better suited the length.

Wild Seed
Octavia Butler (1980)
First time reading this! Butler is so good. This has lots going on; as always with Butler there is much here about power and agency, sex and race and community. And, like usual when I read Butler, I'm left uneasyshe doesn't make things morally easy for the reader. Brilliantly written, her style is invisible. Think Galactic discussed this just after the Le Guin documentary had come out, and it was kind of jaw-dropping to think about this as coming from the early '80snothing against Le Guin or other SF writers of the time, but I can't think of anything that feels this fresh almost four decades later.

Gideon the Ninth
Tamsyn Muir (2019)
Dang, this book. Hands-down my favorite novel of 2019 (Time War is a novella and The Breath of the Sun came out last year, so I dodged a tricky three-way tie on that one). Possibly the best blurb of the year, too: "Lesbian necromancers in space!" Seriously, a phenomenal read. Laugh-out loud funny, with incredibly smart pacing and surprising tonal range. Inventive, with fantastic action and world-building. Character and voice drive this, and despite a really outlandish set of premises it all works very organically. Just superb. And a debut novel to boot! I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.

Travel Light
Naomi Mitchinson (1952)
A delightful, irreverent, modern-feeling fairy tale. I came to this thanks to This Is How You Lose the Time War. Dianna Wynne-Jones comparisons are apt; a coming-of age story with dragons and bears and Norse gods and weirdly-realistic Constantinople politics.

Borne
Jeff VanderMeer (2017)
Holds up! Still a delight. It's really a dark novel, it engages with apocalypse in strange and unsettling ways. But it's also really fun, full of memorable human (and non-human) touches.

Use of Weapons
Iain M. Banks (1990)
This was kind of a rough read, and solidified some of how I've been thinking about Banks. Structurally, this is interesting, using alternating chapters that are moving opposite directions in time, to fill out the main character. It feels like the most wholeheartedly nihilistic of the Culture novels I've read so far; Banks has at least sketched out one of the best fully-automated gay space communist utopias out there, and then spends pretty much all his time on its edges or outside us, the better to focus on pointless depravity and suffering. It's a little weird. There was one big twist that I didn't see coming here, but it was immediately preceded by big twists that were massively telegraphed, so, again, weird. In conclusion, Iain M. Banks would like you to know that the Prime Directive is a load of horse-shit.

The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi (2012)
Felt like giving this a re-read. It's very very good! A little hard to follow, and my firm conclusion, on revisiting it, is that the Oubliette (a city on Mars) and its citizens are 100 times more interesting than the titular thief and the larger plot. The way the consensus-reality works is really intriguing from a social media standpoint, "the Quiet" are a great concept (the potentially-immortal citizens must periodically spend a life as mute robots who build, protect, and serve the city), and the little urban details and exotic intrigues are wonderful.

Bios
Robert Charles Wilson (1999)
Another re-read, just felt like revisiting this. Scientists on an alien world, believable tech, unstoppable alien pathogen. It's like the Andromeda Strain with a home-team advantage. As is usual for Wilson, there's more ideas packed in here than even the initial big premises indicate. I'd forgotten about the casually sexist/infantilizing way the female lead character is treatedand since it's coming from the narrator, not just other characters, it's extra-creepy.

Gamechanger
L.X. Beckett (2019)
Big sprawling cyberpunk novel. Feels heavily indebted to Stephenson, with a layer of climate-crisis-modulated utopia thing on top. Has some interesting things going on, but felt pretty awkward on a number of levelsinsistence on using "#" and "@", even in dialog; introducing actual off-world aliens who are actively invading, but then not really centering that over the VR game tournament storyline; and I found the AI sub-plots really aggravating for basic computer logistics issues. Does a neat job of investigating AI-mediated trauma, transhuman family dynamics, and a few other things, but ultimately the annoying outweighed the interesting, for me at least. Still, an author to watch.

The Monster of Elendhaven
Jennifer Giesbrecht (2019)
What a lovely, perverse little novella! Turn on the darkest Decemberists tune you can find, and dig in: a grimily steampunk or quasi-Victorian secondary world, with a literally monstrous protagonist who links up with a fragile magician bent on revenge. The novella savors its gruesome bits, sketches out an interesting world without taking too much time at it, and powers its characters with delightful if morally ambiguous lustfor each other, for blood, for power. Really a great job here, and I hope to see more soon from Giesbrecht.

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man
Dave Hutchinson (2019)
A good but weird book, as I noted in my full review. Oddly Gibson-like, oddly like Dr. Manhattan fanfic. Hutchinson is such a solid writer that he carries it regardless.

Closely Observed Trains
Bohumil Hrabal (1965)
Ah, Hrabal. Humor and pathos even in the darkest times. Full of real human touches that are the more real for how strange they are. Bonus points for killing some Nazis in this one.

The Future of Another Timeline
Annalee Newitz (2019)
I really wanted to like this, especially based on a reading I heard Newitz do from one chapter. That chapter still rocks, but on the whole I found myself intensely frustrated by this book. I love the core premisefeminist time-travels combating MRA types in what's basically a wiki-style edit-war, BUT WITH MURDERS SOMETIMES, and the World's Fair Chicago setting was fun and clearly well-researched. However, the actual time-travel mechanics here, as well as how the characters think about the ethics of timeline manipulation, are a serious mess. Distractingly so, and pretty much ruined this for me. Grape Ape sounds pretty rad, though.

The Memory Police
Yoko Ogawa (1994)
Pretty weird one! Surreal tale about an island town that is periodically being forced to forget entire categories of things. Strongly put me in mind of Murukami or Jesse Ballthat kind of Kafka-like approach. I kept grappling with where to suspend my disbelief and where not to; the passivity with which most characters meet the issue was a little hard to wrap my mind around. A strange and mostly gentle story of small resistances to a dystopian state.

The Cloud Roads
Martha Wells (2011)
Fantasy that very much reads like science fiction, with a great plethora of intelligent species and a magic system that feelsnot mechanistic, but orderly and natural. Main character is a shape-shifter who is rediscovered by his kind, and becomes involved in a struggle to survive against a ruthless invading species. Quite fun, adventurous, put me vaguely in mind of both Avatar (the blue one) and Gears of War.

Interference
Sue Burke (2019)
Follow-up to Semiosis, trades length of time for breadth of perspective, with tons of viewpoint characters. Is doing a lotthere's Atwoody dystopia stuff back on Earth, a new invading intelligence on Pax, and complicated inter-cultural & inter-species conflicts. It's still committed to a peaceful and ecologically-sound world, but it feels a little despairing that it's possible without some kind of benevolent sovereign. Points for how it deals with some pretty complex in-group power issues, but it feels less strange and wondrous than Semiosis; it's less concerned with the world and more with the story.

The Deep
Rivers Solomon (2019)
Mermaid society descended from the Africans who were thrown overboard slave ships. It's a heck of a starting place for the novella, and Solomon uses it to basically have an extended meditation on remembering versus forgetting past traumawhich is more feasible, which is more doable, which is right? Handles some neuroatypical issues very deftly, which I didn't expect what with the mermaids. I think a weak point is that it has such a definite pastin the origin of its charactersbut doesn't commit to a present setting, in time or place. Fantastic read nonetheless.

The Overstory
Richard Powers (2018)
Dang, this is good. The buzz is deserved. I devoured this, and it is *not small*. Decades-long story following a sizable cast as they join various aspects of the environmental movement. Really likes its trees, does this book, and so do I.  If yr intimidated by the size of this thing, though, give The Monkey Wrench Gang a whirl.

A Darkling Sea
James L. Cambias (2014)
Another re-read, just wanted some fun aliens. Human expedition to a world with a Europa-like ocean under a thick layer of ice. The indigenous intelligent species are kind of like Beluga lobsters, and are going through a slow scientific revolution. Great fun, has glimpses of space-opera-level stuff (there's another, advanced non-human race), a bit silly in places. There's some sexual and then physical violence that kind of comes out of left field about two thirds of the way through.

Record of a Spaceborn Few
Becky Chambers (2018)
I've bounced pretty hard off the Wayfarers books in the past, and am pretty happy to report that I found this one...perfectly fine! Chambers works better for me the less plot is happeningand this one contents itself to mostly being slice-of-life, just on a generation starship dealing with its quasi-irrelevance in a larger and mostly peaceful galactic community. There's still a few cringey science bits, but they're not central.

The Etched City
K.J. Bishop (2003)
I think I heard about this in a random twitter thread, glad I did. It feels kind of...New Weird-adjacent, Moorcocky, Swanwicky. Actually you know what, it feels like what I thought Shadow of the Torturer was gonna be. A doctor and a mercenary, both survivors of a failed rebellion, travel to a distant city to start new lives. Drugs, violence, and an increasingly surreal B-plot with world-altering magic, visits from God, not sure what else. And the whole thing kinda reads like a Western with dashes of Burroughs (Edgar not William). Highly recommended, a good weird read.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
edited by Nisi Shawl (2019)
Dang, this is a great collection! Tons of really great work here, highly recommended.

Dead Astronauts
Jeff VanderMeer (2019)
I just love that VanderMeer did Annihilation (weird, but a critical and commercial success), and then Borne (weird, but very accessible), and then, with Dead Astronauts, is very much Back on His Shit, which is to say: REAL weird. Surreal, textually experimental, jumps viewpoints and timelines. Being familiar with Borne and The Strange Bird will add some context, but coherency is not what he's shooting for here. I really love how much the nonhuman is central to this book.

The Best of Greg Egan
Greg Egan (2019)
This is an outstanding collection, and although it's significantly heftier than Stories of Your Life or Exhalation, I want to press it on everyone who likes Chiang. Some of Egan's best short work from the past 30 years, it shows him exploring a connected set of topics, including AI rights, what constitutes self when technology allows us to edit that, and the project of science itself. I'm particularly a fan of "Oracle", which pits the worldviews of a thinly-disguised Alan Turin & C.S. Lewis against each other, and I was also taken with a series of linked stories about digital consciousnesses in a cheap game-world figuring out how to preserve themselves and survive.

Ancestral Night
Elizabeth Bear (2019)
Great fun, pure space opera. Wears Cherryh & Banks pretty blazenly on its sleeve, which is all to its favor. Suprisingly psychologically-focused for a long middle chunk, with big giant space action at the end. AIs, cats, ancient aliens, living spaceships, pirates, and more, this was a very fun read.

That's it! Good stuff to come!

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