Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 Reads in Review, Part 3: New Reads

Things that crossed my radar somehow or other. Most are fairly new but a few were older but New To Me:

  • “Bible Stories for Adults” (1996)- James Morrow
    • Incredibly good collection of shorts. Morrow's sarcastic, humane, thoughtful, not-afraid-to-be-silly style is superb at these lengths. Delightfully blasphemous, yet never mean-spirited. Probably the funniest book I read all year.
  • “Pushing Ice” (2006)- Alastair Reynolds
    • Hard SF, but a pretty weak read. Feels pretty blatantly like a discarded draft of Greg Bear's “Eon”. Characterization/motivation should be the novel's strong points, based on how it's written, but they're totally unbelievable and rather ruin the rest of it.
  • “Song of Kali” (1985)- Dan Simmons
    • “Hyperion” is one of the greatest SF works ever written, and I've enjoyed some of Simmons' other SF, but never checked out his horror until this year. I don't know how to take it, exactly—I don't have much experience as a horror reader. It's very well written. I didn't find it scary, though it is horrible.
  • “The Inverted World” (1974)- Christopher Priest
    • This is one I'm going to be re-reading over the years. Feels kind of like “cozy catastrophe” British SF from the previous era, but slowly reveals itself to be a lot deeper. This novel's doing some WEIRD, subtle, structural experiments on the reader based on genre expectations. Also it features a perpetual train, which Mieville's “Iron Council” has endeared to me.
  • “Natives of Space” (1965)- Hal Clement
    • Fun, incredibly light alien stories. Not as much fun science weirdness as I like from Clement.
  • “Prophet of Bones” (2013)- Ted Kosmatka
    • I set my expectations too high for this one, based on the short story it grew from, “Prophet of Flores”. Alternate history (about present-day) where the theories of evolution (and supporting geological theories) never took hold, for unclear reasons, so something like Young Earth Creationism is the actual accepted scientific model. Following the discovery of the Flores bones, our protagonist uncovers a conspiracy to cover up similar finds, and also of course breed weird hominid hybrids. Of course! My gripes were primarily the way it descended from a pretty interesting alternate history, looking at religion & science, belief & heresy—and turned into a pretty ham-fisted thriller with unexpected sexism and this weird tone about apes/hybrids that, while not actually racist, definitely evoked the feel of “savage” narratives. Weird. Crichton-y, enjoyable despite the gripes.
    • Also I have to include this weird anecdote—most of the novel doesn't take place in Chicago. But one scene does! Basically a chase scene, that takes place downtown. I was reading this on my break at work, on the patio, literally reading that the characters were rushing around the corner I was sitting on at that moment. Surreal. And good scene research, Kosmatka.
  • “Ancillary Sword” (2014)- Ann Leckie
    • Mm. Meh. There's no tension here like there is in “Justice”--it's not entirely clear why Breq cares about anything going on in this book. Also we know that elsewhere in the universe aliens are maybe-gearing-up-to-attack, and that the quasi-immortal many-bodied ruler of the Radch is tearing herself apart in a schizophrenic civil war. Amount of that that shows up in “Ancillary Sword”? Zero. Lots of tea, though.
  • “On Basilisk Station” (1992) & “The Honor of the Queen” (1993)- David Weber
    • I was overdue to read these in my occasional quest for satisfying military SF. They're alright. Rely on some magi-tech, so the specifics of the space combat, while well-fleshed out, didn't interest me that much. I could see these characters growing interesting with time, but they felt fairly one-dimensional early on.
  • “Fluency” (2014) - Jennifer Foehner Wells
    • Blech, steer clear. Bad writing and worse editing. Deeply unoriginal first contact story.
  • “Authority” & “Acceptance” (2014)- Jeff VanderMeer
    • Good stuff. I stick by my claim that “Annihilation” can be read solo, yet at the same time the rest of the “Southern Reach” trilogy will not detract from its greatness. “Authority” marks an interesting mode-change: reads more like a spy novel, lots of tense non-action, also maintains some of the horror-elements of its predecessor—wins the award for Most Scalp Tingling Moment in my reading this year, you'll know the scene I mean if you read it. “Acceptance” looks like it's going to wrap things up, but if anything just introduces more ambiguity and possible readings, which is honestly delightful.
  • “Echopraxia” (2014)- Peter Watts
    • Alas, this isn't quite what it could be. The follow-up to “Blindsight”, which, I've mentioned, I consider possibly the best SF novel yet written in the 21st century, “Echopraxia” lacks “Blindsight's” core vehicle—that is to say, plot/character/setting/motivation that carry us through. While there's tons of interesting stuff going on, lots of real and speculative science dropped upon us, it lacks the creepy/snarky/snappiness of its predecessor.
  • “Roadside Picnic” (1977)- Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
    • New to me, I read this to wrap my head around “Annihilation” some more. This is probably the most famous SF about “alien area we just really don't understand”; Tarkovsky's “Stalker” is a pretty faithful film adaption, there are a slew of similar US stories around the same time, and Crichton's “Sphere” could probably be considered in the same general camp. Regardless, a fun read, interesting characters, felt to me like it's saying something about Technology Changing Us.
  • “The Madness Season” (1990)- C.S. Friedman
    • What a weird one! Reptile hive-mind alien overlords, shapeshifters, and oh yeah our protagonist is a vampire although I think the word is only mentioned once or twice. Would have been twice as enjoyable at half as long, but still a fun read. There's so much pseudo-science in this (psi, “life force”, etc.) that it's probably better read as “fantasy in space” as opposed to SF.
  • “Falling Free” (1987) & “Shards of Honor” (1986) - Lois McMaster Bujold
    • After “Ethan of Athos”, I wanted to check out the Vorkosigan books. I apparently need to get deeper in, these didn't grab me. Too simplistically/dramatically space opera for my taste, childishly black and white on every issue. But I hear the Vorkosigan series gets pretty good later on.
  • “Protector” (2013)- C. J. Cherryh
    • Book...14 now? In the atevi sequence that began with Foreigner. It's a good read, snappy, lots going on, more satisfying than a lot of the later Foreigner books. Hopefully Bren & co. will get back to space and break out of some of the formulaic groundside stories soon.
  • “Burning Paradise” (2013)- Robert Charles Wilson
    • Wilson's a solid, enjoyable writer—a modern incarnation of the classic “take 1-2 weird ideas and run with them” brand of SF—and “Burning Paradise” is a good example of his work. As usual, there are shades of nihilism here—I'm never entirely sure that he likes any of his characters—with a fairly bleak worldview quasi-mitigated by happy endings, and as usual there's lots of pleasing weirdness. In this one we're in an alternate-history present-day, wherein ethereal hive-intelligences living in the earth's upper atmosphere have been manipulating human affairs, bringing about both world peace and—perhaps—a less benign agenda. Like “Blindsight” and a few other stories from the last few years, is trying to grapple with the idea of intelligent beings that aren't conscious in the human sense. Lot of gripes with how the plot plays out, and as usual with Wilson I just have a hard time caring about his characters, but worth reading.
  • “A Darkling Sea” (2014)- James L. Cambias
    • A solid first SF novel. First contact story on a Europa-like world (liquid ocean under ice), featuring two distinct alien races as well as humans. The whole thing feels fairly light, with the Ilmatar stealing the show—blind, sonar-using lobster/whale folks who are starting to develop technologically: at least one group of them seems based pretty heavily on the enthusiastic but not-yet-disciplined naturalists of the Royal Society. Cambias has been getting some Vernor Vinge comparisons, which is quite apt.
  • “Beyond the Rift” (2013)- Peter Watts
    • This collection is highly recommended; Watts is extremely strong at short lengths, where he can quickly develop intriguing and often disturbing ideas. A varied selection, all pretty hard SF and all pretty fantastic. Some may find these horrifying or nihilistic; I laughed maniacally aloud for a few.
  • “The Rhesus Chart” (2014)- Charles Stross
    • A lot of series, in any media, fall prey to a string of related maladies—they get too wrapped up in their internal dynamics, jump the shark trying to reinvent themselves, or stagnate in repetitive episodicity. Stross's “Laundry” novels are an excellent counterexample—they've evolved at several levels as the series has progressed, slowly turning up the tension. Since “The Atrocity Archives”, Stross has balanced black humor, squicky Lovecraftian occult, and a type of bureaucratic/spy thriller-ishness at turns Bond-like and Orwellian. Like a centrifuge, Stross has both concentrated and separated these veins over time; despite vampires who are in some ways the silliest entries yet, “The Rhesus Chart” is also increasingly cold, grim, and lonely, in Bob Howard's personal life as well as in the longer (doomed?) struggle against the gibbering forces of darkness that underlies the immediate story. Highly recommended, though you should definitely start from the beginning.

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