Monday, December 28, 2015

What I Read in 2015

This is the second in my year-end series addressing works of music, literature, and film that seemed important to me. Today, I’m focusing on literature.
I read a bunch this year, mostly works from 2014 but a few from this year. Any long-time reader of this blog might be able to guess at my favorites from this year but I discovered plenty of exciting new artists along the way.

  1. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Hands-down my favorite novel this year and probably one of my favorites from KSR outside of the Mars Trilogy. Borrowing themes and motifs from previous works (even Shaman!), Kim Stanley Robinson here crafts a generation ship tale unlike any I’ve read. This novel will endure for me well past 2015 because its target is not just the implausibility of interstellar travel, but the pernicious danger of human ideas when confronting the hard truths. Put simply, people are bad at accepting facts they cannot see or choose to ignore. Sound familiar? Even so, this novel is not doom and gloom, but a stirring argument for reprioritizing life over ideology. Placed alongside his other work, KSR makes a strong argument for a separate sub-genre in speculative fiction - the optimistic realist.
  2. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: I bought this book because Jemisin was the Guest of Honor at last year’s Arisia and she makes a terrific salesperson for her work. I was not disappointed. The world she creates here, The Stillness, is one wracked with enormous tectonic cataclysms. The book follows the misadventures of terramancers - the hated orogenes - both serving as state slaves and as dangerous rogues in a world on the brink of destruction. Jemisin is particularly good in this book at introducing concepts gradually, exploring each one fully before broadening the world. This is clearly the first work in a much larger series but I never once felt as though I reading through exposition. 
  3. Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Water Knife takes its name for the slang term in his novel for water company operatives who methodically pare away junior water rights for communities in a post-collapse Southwestern United States. If you want an exciting and believable look at the emerging climate-change fueled water crisis - this is the novel for you. Works as both a thriller and a well-researched meditation on how collapse might look in our country. 
  4. Seveneves by Neil Stephenson: At nearly a thousand pages, Seveneves has a great opening line about the moon exploding for no particular reason and a steadily ratcheting up of tension and drama as the the people of earth goes through a radical and sustained population adjustment. Ultimately, as compelling as this first section is, the last third reads like the flavor text for a space opera RPG, establishing an interesting world devoid of characters to care about. Still, I’m putting it on the list despite its flaws for the sheer scope of Stephenson’s invention.
  5. Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace: This is a strange beast. Archivist Wasp is a kind of ghost killer in a shattered world beset by the angry wraiths of some distant half-remembered global war. She finds a powerful ghost that wishes her to help him rescue his love and follows him into a richly imagined underworld. Archivist Wasp is a great character, at once wounded and vulnerable, but also courageous and indomitable. Think Neil Gaiman collaborating with Stephen King and then think of something way better than that.

Short Stories:

  • For the Love Sylvia City by Andrea Pawley. As I said when I highlighted this story in my short story review column - the particular strength of this story is how well it does conjuring an entire world in a very short period of time. Pawley describes a strange and haunted post-apocalypse, a world where different strains of humanity have tried to survive as best they can in ecosystems untouched by war and technological holocaust.
  • Ten Things to Know about the Ten Questions by Gwendolyn Kiste. I’ve already mentioned Kiste a few times this year for her steady output of terrific stories. This is my favorite, her dread-inducing character study of a person primed to go ‘missing.’ Similar themes to The Leftovers, but handled with much more palpable malice.
  • Spring Thaw by Charles Payseur. Setting counts for a lot in horror stories and the forbidding wastes of Antarctica is one of the best. Here the landscape and the horrors it contains serve as metaphors for the buried trauma of a troubled researcher. While the horror is no less visceral, it is an emotion harnessed for another purpose.
  • Dog by Bruce McAllister. This is a story where visceral horror is the focus. An appalling and absorbing look at a couple haunted by demonic dogs lingered with me for a long time after reading it. The details of this story are so specific and wrenching that the entire tale acquires the inevitability of a dream that follows you into your waking life.
  • Meshed by Rich Larson. I encountered a few cyberpunk stories this year, but this was probably the best. In the future, sports stars are fitted with ‘meshes,’ or cybernetic devices recording their experiences for sale. A basketball scout searches for a way to convince a young aspiring star to become meshed, over the objections of his beloved grandfather. One of those works of speculation that works on multiple levels effortlessly, exploring the implications of near-future technology while simultaneously digging into the meaning of family and individual talent.



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