Tuesday, December 30, 2014
What I Read in 2014
I was finally able to catch up enough with my reading list in 2014 to read books and stories published in 2014. There’s more I hope to read within the next few weeks to prepare for the Speculative Fiction: Year in Review panel for Arisia, but I’ve already found more than a few reasons to celebrate literature this year.
I’m splitting this post in two, the first half dealing with novels and the second half talking up a few of my favorite shorter works.
5) The Peripheral: William Gibson achieves two tricks in this novel. One is stylistic. Gibson writes cool just about better than any living science fiction author. Even though he’s describing a very discouraging brand of dystopia, one can’t help but want to live there, to experience what Gibson is describing. The other trick Gibson manages is showing the cost of such pondering. In this book, characters from two separate time period confront a murder with consequences for both realities. The future isn’t simply a direction in The Peripheral, it’s a force, an often ominous one. Honestly, even though the plot seemed needlessly complicated at points, the ideas presented were so disturbing and compelling, I found this one of the must-read works of the year.
4)The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August: Claire North. As already reviewed, this work is compulsively readable. The character of Harry August is blank, but sharply defined in opposition to his enemy. The concept of the August’s version of immortality is one that bears repeated exploration and consideration. Highly entertaining.
3) Burnt Black Suns: A Collection by Simon Strantzas. One artifact of having watched True Detective was a year-long quest tracking down weird fiction authors I had not heard of and reading through their works. One of the more obscure - at least to me - was Simon Strantzas. I know he had a work in the Seasons of Carcosa collection put together by Laird Barron and that was about it. Really though, Strantzas probably has more in common with some of the latter-day practioners of weird fiction than Chambers and Lovercraft. Although he certainly embraces the tropes of cosmic horror - vast immortal god-like beings, the oppressive sense of an indifferent and hostile universe - there is something altogether more visceral in Strantzas’ stories. People don’t simply go mad at the experience of encountering the uncanny (although they do that too) they very likely dissolve, degenerate, and fall to pieces. Strantzas’ use of body horror is sophisticated and appalling, describing a universe with little use for any element of the human identity, whether as food, slaves, or adversaries.
2) Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: The first of a weird fiction trilogy called the Southern Reach, all conveniently released this year. I’ve yet to read the later two thirds of the book but the first (basically self-contained) volume was striking. Weighing in at under 200 pages, Annihilation introduces the idea of Area X, a bizarre territory being explored by teams sent in by the government. As the nameless characters go about exploring their section of the area they find mystery piled upon mystery. Vandermeer’s style here owes something to the television show, "LOST" without falling into that show’s pitfalls. From the nature of Area X to the somewhat cosmic nature of the threats within it Vandermeer has larger fish to fry and takes his own rather bizarre path very quickly.
1) Echopraxia by Peter Watts. All Peter Watts novels are events for me. In part that is because his artistry continues to move forwards: crafting of believable characters and propulsive plots all the while raising genuinely thought-provoking science. Watts embraces an inspirational spirit of transparency. Not content to simply name-check a few current concepts or half-digested studies, Watts puts it all up there for the readers at the end of his novel, a point-by-point defense of the ideas, however outlandish, mentioned however briefly in the test. The best thing I can say about Watts as an individual and an artist is that he brings an unflinching gaze upon his subjects.
Short fiction: Not really arranged by order because these are a hard bunch of stories to rank.
"Passage of Earth" by Michael Swanwick (Clarkesworld) A first contact story filtered through the metaphor of an autopsy. What at first seems random and bizarre becomes increasingly predetermined and transcendent. This a story that really does derive a lot of its strength from its ending.
"Covenant" by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph Anthology) On one hand, this is basically a re-working of the age-old question - if someone is forced to be virtuous can they still be considered good? Clockwork Orange approached this question from the negative, that being ‘reformed’ into positive social behavior negated the concept of both good and evil. "Covenant," befitting its inclusion in the futurist “Hieroglyph” anthology edited by Corey Doctorow, provides a different takes. During a morning job, a former ‘right-minded’ serial killer is kidnapped by a novice predator. After extensive brain therapy the former killer become something capable of considering difficult questions, a moral being in other words. What I enjoyed about this story was even though Bear depicts an unquestionably better future, it is a future filled with tough choices. Is it better for the killer to atone for previous crimes by dying or live to bring the attacker to justice?
"The Clockwork Soldier" by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) The ‘text-adventure’ story. Aside from the clever device of telling a story through an old-fashioned computer program, there is wonderful ambiguity to this story, right down to the final command prompt.
"Giants" by Peter Watts (Clarkesworld) This was a big year for Watts, from Echopraxia to a very engaging preview story called “The Colonel.” Giants is something else altogether, the riveting account of a generation ship sailing through the eye of a needle between an immense gas giant and the supergiant ripping it apart. Like all Watts stories there is a perfectly valid reason to explain all of the proceedings, but it doesn’t really take away from the fact that this is a story about damaged people forced into impossible actions by circumstances.
"Stoop Sale" by Evan Berkow (Crossed Genres) A very short story, about selling memories and moving on. One of the most poignant stories I read this year.
Update: Various corrections and stylistic clarifications.