Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 in Books (Part 1: Fiction)

A string of excellent recommendations from friends, blogs and podcasts, translated into a phenomenal year of fiction.  I continued my quest to metabolize the Speculative Fiction neo-Classics (working slowly through the Hugo winners), and also surveyed recent, popular work.

As usual, I count down from worst to best, so while there are only two books I didn’t like this year, the tone starts out cranky.  It gets better.[1]  Skimming is recommended.

Key:
(A) -  Audio – I listened to this
(H) – Won a Hugo
(h) – Nominated for a Hugo

Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein  (A) (H)

"The only religious opinion I feel sure of is this: self-awareness is not just a bunch of amino acids bumping together!”[2][3]

Summary: A child born during the first mission to mars becomes the mission’s only survivor, and is subsequently raised by Martians.  A second mission brings him home 20 years later.  He arrives with edenic innocence and psychological superpowers and develops into the leader of a cultish, hippy, pyramid scheme, sex den…in…you know…like totally a ‘good’ way, man.

This was how good the year was.  The worst book won a Hugo.

The first quarter of this book was fun and interesting and engaging, the classic Sci-Fi the Hugo promised.  The rest was polemical, pedantic and tedious.[4]  If the Sparrow (see below) is the book I want to write, this is the book I am afraid I wrote.

Nation - Terry Pratchett (A)

Summary: A tsunami wipes out the villages on a Pacific archipelago.  An adolescent, stuck in the ceremonial transition between boy and man, survives alone from the most populated island.  Survivors from other islands (and a white girl from a ship) collect under his reluctant leadership and he guides them away from pernicious religious superstition to enlightened secular wisdom…in…you know…like totally a ‘good’ way .[5]

This isn’t really fair.  Prachett wrote many many novels that come highly recommended.  I chose the one because our library had the audio version.  I’ll read more Prachett and am almost sure I’ll enjoy it.  But like SIASL, the themes of the glorious victory of rationalisms over the pernicious superstition of religion were so pedantic and heavy handed (not to mention comically anachronistic) that Nation scarcely felt like a story. [6]

The GoldfinchDonna Tartt (A)

“That life - whatever else it is - is short…Nature always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it…it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”[7]

Summary: Boy looses mom[8] in terrorist attack and ‘accidentally’ steals a priceless work of art (said Goldfinch).  Friends and relatives pass him around in a Dickensian string of bad luck – and the painting moves with him.  He accumulates traumas that eventually produce negative character feedbacks leading to a new streak of self-generated bad luck…until it all comes (700 pages later) to a crisis point.

This is how good the year was.  The 3rd worst book I read…won this year’s Pulitzer.

This is the first time I read a book before it won the Pulitzer, so I read it without knowing that I was supposed to love it. 

And here’s the thing, I liked it.  It was a very good novel, as sweeping, Dickensian, pieces go.  If you asked me if I liked it I would have nodded and given you an unenthusiastic ‘Yeah.’

And then it won the Pulitzer, and I turned on the Goldfinch.

As a novel, it was fine.  As a celebrated piece of literature, held up as the best of the genre for the last 2 years (no Pulitzer was awarded last year), it’s scandal. 

But, of course, when fiction is recognized as great by experts and not by me, I have to own that the fault is at least partially my own. 

I think I just have to face it.  Not only am I a genre author, I’m a genre reader.  But I would argue that SciFi and Fantasy and Urban Fiction are so well written these days, that you don’t lose much by going genre, and the opposite is not true.[9]

The Ocean at the End of the LaneNeil Gaiman (h) (A)

“I make art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my life. Some of them. Not all.”[10]

Summary: A man returns home for a funeral, and wanders to a farm house at the end of the lane, where he remembers a mystical conflict (including four trophic levels of cosmic critters[11]) from his childhood that drives him to ask a hard, fundamental, questions.  TOATEOTL is fundamentally a story about the helplessness of childhood and how that echoes into the helplessnesses of ‘adulthood.’ [12]

I like Gaiman a lot.  But I like his short fiction much better than his novels.[13]  Ocean started as a short story, and by the time he was done, it was a short novel.  I think I would have liked it better as a short story, at a quarter of the length.  The best stuff was in the first 4 pages and the last 4 pages.  The story in between gives these pages weight, but didn’t draw me in enough to feel ‘worth it.” 

Also, despite the sublime sentences and dark ecology, I think Gaiman lost me in the father’s betrayal.  I realize this was a story about how children feel, and most children feel that their parents are part of the world set against them.[14]  But a story in which the father is not unreservedly for his son violate my plausibility structures more than cosmic critters.

Still, the last 3 pages and their reflections on the nature of atonement are almost worth the reasonable price of admission, though. 

Intermission - Song of the year: Holocene

So, at this point, I shift from books I thought were flawed to books I either really liked or loved. 

The 14 or so books after this point all get 5 of 5 stars.

To critique the following books would be nit picking and ranking them is a little absurd. 

In honor of a great year of fiction, let me run my favorite song of the year.  Holocene by Bon Iver easily became the song I listened to the most times in my life.  It is so crushingly beautiful, so hauntingly lovely (especially for anyone who has spent winter in the rust belt) that I would sometimes just play it on repeat for hours as I wrote.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWcyIpul8OE

“An at once I knew I was not Magnificent
Jagged vacants thick with ice.
And I could see for miles and miles.”

Eye of the World (Wheel of Time Book 1) - Robert Jordan (A)

“She was giving me advice on being a woman...”
“Advice?  Nobody tells us how to be men.  We just are.”
“That,” Aguain said, “is probably why you make such a bad job of it.”

Summary: In the first volume of twelve[15] Robert Jordan resets the post-Tolkien fantasy genre with a classic quest story that wanders enough to introduce characters that will probably be important in future books, but still offers a compelling, self contained narrative, not just an intro to a series.  

This is how good the year was.  Possibly the seminal fantasy series since Tolkien (or, I guess, between Tolkien and Martin) landed in the #14 spot.  I don’t love ‘epic fantasy,’ the opportunity costs in other, more disciplined, stories is just too high.  Long books have to earn their pages in my opinion, and get graded harder.  But still, great book.
Neuromancer - William Gibson (H) (A)

Quote “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”[16]

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”

Summary (cultural import): Most trace the origin of the word ‘cyberspace’ to this head spinning novel which sired the cyber punk genre.[17]  More impressive than naming the internet, is Gibson’s prescient feel for the future, much of which obtained in the decades since the novel won the 1985/6 Hugo and Nebula. 

Summary (story): A ‘cowboy’ (hacker)[18] and ‘razor girl’ street samurai (and about a thousand other characters, both real and construct) pull a job for a mysterious employer, which turns on them as their employer’s identity proves complicated.[19]

Like the Chiba City gangster who used genetic treatments to stave off aging, this book defies time, daring it to pass, confident that culture will simply catch up rather than leave it behind.  It’s almost a literary miracle.  Neuromancer won the Hugo one year after Asimov’s acclaimed Foundation, but feels 25 years younger, the Ser Beriston Selmey of Sci Fy, casually besting its spry progeny well into its golden years. 

The plot is torrential, surging and turning, daring you to keep up, but not much caring if you do.  Gibson throws characters and settings at you as fast as he drops transcendent metaphor.[20]  And that is Neuromancer’s glory and its flaw.  I have couple friends that didn’t finish, a couple others who finished out of principle.  I’ve heard Neurmancer described as “a book William Gibson wrote, then deleted every other sentence.” I frankly re-read often passages often, partly trying figure out what the heck was going on and sometimes just to savor one of those perfect “showings” that reminds you why film will never render word obsolete.

Neuromancer is a force of nature.  It is a transcendent, towering, work of philosophy and art and prophecy.  But here’s the thing; about a decade ago Gibson rebranded, writing less ambitious near-future science fiction, and I think he got better.  The pacing, writing, characters, of Pattern Recognition (see last year’s list) were all just better.  Its like he was a  phenom prospect power pitcher who traded the brute force of his early years for craft, adding new pitches and studying hitter tendencies, laying off the heat and becoming great.  Like Neuromancer, Gibson has defied the deadening effects of time.

Storm of SwordsGeorge RR Martin (h) (A)
(3rd ‘Game of Thrones/Ice and Fire’ Book)

 “When you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him.”[21]

“…if we start killing men at weddings they’ll be even more frightened of marriage than they are presently.”

“Sorcery is a sword without a hilt.  There is no safe way to grasp it.”[22]

Also, this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vU8eL2CjzHw

Summary: In a world that is simultaneously re-enchanting[23] and closing in on a multi-year winter of unknown length, with dragons coming of age in the east, and a cryogenic army of walking dead (and scarier things) making things interesting in the North, the people of the seven kingdoms fight over the ‘worlds least comfortable chair,’ [24] revealing the capricious myopia at the center of the human heart.

Abbreviated Summary: George Martin kills everyone he made you care about in the previous 2000 pages. Bastard.[25]

This is how good this year was.  A great novel by Martin, many say, the best Ice and Fire book, fell in the lower half.

I need to be careful not to drop 3000 words on the top 25 things I want to say about Ice and Fire here.  I guess I’ll just say, I loved this book, I love this series, and between GOT*[26] and The Wire (and, I’ll add Firefly), I have been ruined for bad television, which is most of the rest of it in comparison.[27]

*A footnote that I want read, so I’m putting it here.  Many of my readers will find GOT too explicit to watch.  That is probably wise.  We use the fast forward button VERY liberally.  So the truth is, I don’t actually know how much sex is in this show or how graphic it is, because I don’t watch that content.[28] 

Also, this probably would landed higher on my list if I read it before the shows.

Also, my favorite character, Thorace of Myr, shows up in book 3, though like many minor characters, he’s better characterized in less time in the show:

Canticles of LeibowitzWalter Miller (A) (H)

“We’ve been waiting for a long time to see the world start taking an interest in itself again.”

Summary (import): "may be the one universally acknowledged literary masterpiece to emerge from magazine SF." - critic David N. Samuelson

Summary (story): An order of monks protects books through multiple human self-destructions.

The story about this book is as interesting as the story in it (I told it in the intro to this talk).  Miller was a US bomber pilot in WWII and, on one mission over Italy, bombed a monetary.  The event haunted him, led him to embrace the faith, and eventually, to take his life.  He only published the one novel, and it’s remarkable.

Orax and Crake/The Flood* - Margaret Atwood (A)

*Note: For Margaret Attwood and Kim Stanley Robinson I read the first two volumes of their trilogies.  I ranked their work based on the first novel.  In both cases I liked the first one better, but the second one was also great for many of the same reasons.

“When did the body first set out on its own adventures?[30]…It must have got tired of the soul’s constant nagging and whining and the anxiety-driven intellectual web-spinning of the mind, distracting it whenever it was getting its teeth into something juicy or its fingers into something good[31]… Why not cut to the chase?  But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.”

Summary: A young man grows up in a genetic engineering compound in a near-future dystopia, and he, his friend, and his girlfriend - who grew up as a sex worker - turn things into full-blown, post society dystopia.  The narrator’s bizarre, solitary, dystopic, daily existence mingles with flashbacks to tell their intertwining story, delaying the ‘how things got so bad’ reveal, focusing instead on the character’s adolescence.  The Sequel covers the same history from different POVs and ends in the converging events.[32]

When HBO announced they would adapt the MaddAdam trilogy, I decided I wanted to read on the front end of it.  Plus, in accordance with my ‘read more women’ new years resolution from 5 years ago, Attwood was near the top of my list anyway.  Her dystopic near future is dark, engaging, and well crafted, and, while Attwood’s ideologies are well documented, the novels have the girth of moral investigation without becoming polemical.[33]

Intermission 2: Song of the Year Runner Up

My brother does not share my passion for music.  He may have once described my musical tastes as “intentional nervous system assaults.”  But he sent me this link late in the year with the subject “this song”.  Which is exactly the way I feel.  This Song.[34]


Ficciones - Jorge Luis Borges (50%)

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” (not from Fictones, but my favorite Borges quote…from a copious selection)

Summary:  In ruthlessly efficient short stories that imagine an infinite library, a recursive narrative labyrinth, and an encyclopedia of a fake world that calls it into being, Borges demonstrates why he’s one of the classic South American authors.

At this point a ranked list become absurd.  Borges plays a different game in a different era than most of the authors on this list.  His penchant for ‘found literature’[35] made me immediately warm to him.  


The Magicians – Lev Grossman (A)

“He had reached the outer limits of what fun, capitol F could do for him.  The cost was way too high, the returns pitifully inadequate.  His mind was dimly awakening to other things that were as important or more so.”

“If there is a moral to Martain Chatwin it was that:  Sure you can live out your dreams, but it will only turn you into a monster.”[36]

“It wasn't even worth it.  That's the funny part.  You came here for the same reason we did, and are you happy now?  You found out didn't you.  There's no getting away from yourself.  Not even in Fillory.

Summary: (according to the Amazon reviews) Harry Potter with lots of sex.

Summary: (according to John Green) “… knowing and wonderful take on the wizard school genre…”

Actually, that’s not bad, but let’s try one more.

Actual Summary: A mash up of demythologized Potter and Narnia that simultaneously adores and eviscerates each, and is much better than it sounds like it should be.

Lev Grossman wrote a Nanorimo pep talk last November[37], and it was so understated and wise and winning that I immediately got his book even though I forgot it didn’t sound interesting in John Green’s review.   I found the book similar to the pep talk, understated, wise, and winning, but with much more sex, and, like, 100% more wolf sex narrated in the first person.

This is actually two novels, the naturalized Harry Potter-esqe wizard school story that prepares the characters to explore a demythologized, dystopic Narnia.[38]  I loved them both.  I kept wanting to drop it below the GREAT, classic texts it on the list, but I just really enjoyed it.  It evoked.  I loved the bored protagonist, the driftless privilege, the self-destructive longing, the tedium of magic, the enchanted world that felt flatter and less enchanted than our own, the understated playful writing that kept the whole thing from trailing off into farce.  I loved that the deadening forces of adulthood disenchanted Quinton’s world faster than he could enchant with actual magic.

2005 Sci Fi Compellation/2013 Sci Fi and Fantasy – Rich Horton and Gardner Dozois

Quote: “(Dave) still wears his hair long, covering his ears, and I think he's secretly a little bit vain about it. A little bit proud of still having all his hair. I think there's something in this, something valuable, something he could use to get back. You don't cling to personal vanities if you've given up all hope of a normal life. At least, I don't think you do.”  - Sofia Samatar - Honey Bear

Summary: Horton and Dozoios each compile the best Sci Fi/SciFi-Fantasy short works of the year, every year, in a svelte 400-600 pages.

After these volumes, I seriously questioned why anyone reads novels, and why I want to write them.

Compellations are hit or miss…but if you are willing to bail on underwhelming stories, heterogeneity doesn’t matter as long as quality is in there.  And it is.

I bought the 2005 compilation at a garage sale for a quarter and scanned the first lines of each story until one drew me in.  I read the second one front to back, giving stories more patience, only bailing on a couple that did not seem promising half way through.  The short digital form made perfect plane reading.

But both programs produced phenomenal stories including:

“The Black Feminist’s Guide to Science Fiction Film Editing” by Sandra McDonald[39]
“One Day in Time City” by David Ira Cleary

And in the 2005 Dozois volume I really enjoyed

“Triceratops Summer”
“Case of Conciliance”[40]

But one story was worth the price of admission alone.

“Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar is in the mix with Ted Cheing’s “Stories of Your Life” (see the final entry below) with the best fiction have read not only this year, but in very a long time. 

I won’t summarize Honey Bear.  It's one of those stories that works better the less you know about it.  Instead, I’ll link to it.

But I’ll say that the precision with which Sofia Samatar, a young, single woman, imagined my emotional world of fatherhood is uncanny.  I’m not even sure if she was trying to do that, it is speculative fiction after all.  But it felt like a well crafted metaphor for the tensioned responsibilities and fears of fatherhood.

I’ll be reading more Samater (and not just because she got her Phd from University of Wisconsin and now teaches in the UC system, and not just because I am trying to read more diverse and female authors, but because her short fiction is stunning), and apparently I’m not alone.  She got Nebula and Hugo nominations this year for her first novel and another great short story[41].

Red Mars/Green Mars  [42] - Kim Stanley Robinson

"The only part of an argument that really matters is what we think of the people arguing.  X claims a, and Y claims b.  They make arguments to support their claims with any number of points.  But when their listeners remember the discussion, what matters simply is that X believes a and Y believes b.  People then form their judgment based on what they think of X and y."
"But we're scientists! we’re trained to weigh evidence."
John nodded (to Maya) "True.  In fact, since I like you, I concede the point." 

Summary: 100 scientists go to Mars to start a civilization.  Over the following decades, as immigration soars and things start to go very badly on earth, the ‘first hundred’ form factions and align with a wide variety of forces trying to assert their agenda on Mars.[43] 

I’ve decided that ‘hard science fiction’ (HSF) is like Opera.  It’s a virtuosity genre.  HSF is world building virtuosity.  The story and characters are tour guides to physical and social worlds so richly and rigorously realized that they are worth exploring.  The stories of their lives are secondary.[44]

In this way the HSF novel is kind of like the literary novel (where word-craft trumps plot, and, sometimes, even characterization)…only, HSF it is more my kind of virtuosity.

But just like Opera, it appeals to a pretty narrow sub-population. In one stretch of the second Mars book, a character attends a scientific conference, going to talks and perusing posters.  It was wonderful.  It captured the petty personalities and dull culture and hard-to-define joy of a scientific conference perfectly, speculating about technical details of Martian terraforming (including a quantified heat budget and a row about the role of carbon).  But as I realized how much I enjoyed the chapter I wondered, “What kind of market does this have?  How many people would enjoy this as much as I am?”

Anyway, Robinson (who, from what I can tell, has no forma scientific education) is remarkable.  With my four graduate degrees, I know 3 or 4 scientific fields well enough to evaluate the technical detail of his prose.  I can say, he nailed the science (at least at the time of his writing) on those.   So I’ll just go ahead and assume he got it right in the other 16-17.[45]


The Last Light of the Sun - Guy Gavriel Kay  (A)

"As far as Kendra was concerned, defiance had to get you somewhere, otherwise it was just noisy."

“Aeldred’s younger daughter did something almost unspeakably brave, going alone at night into the blackness of a wood believed to be hunted, intending to confront the spirit world…And spoke a message, the message of warning she’d come to give – and it signified nothing at all, in the wheel and turn of that night.”

“The past, what we have done or not done, slips and flows, like a stream to a carved-out channel, into the things we do years after. It is never safe, or wise, to say that anything is over.”

Summary: In his distinct genre which melds historical fiction with speculative fiction, we get the story of England, Whales, and the Vikings in the time of King Albert the great (of England), in a parallel reality populated with thinly veiled religious analogs, fully realized, sympathetic characters, and fairy queens.

In speculative fiction GGK is a writer’s writer.  When other speculative fiction writers talk about the best pure prose in the genre, his name tops the list in almost reverent, hushed tones.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  The fuss was warranted.

Speculative fiction sometimes seems to be a multi-axis tradeoff between concept, character, prose, theme, and plot.  Pick two, three if you are a great.  Maybe, if you are a savant, four, but no one gets five.  I think the thing that makes GGK special, is that he is the proverbial ‘five tool author.’[46]

The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell (A)

“When faced with the divine people chose the banal – what do you do with the burning bush.  Call 911 or get the hot dogs.”[47]

Summary: SETI hears music from Alpha century, and while the world governments decide what to do, the Vatican sends a team.  It doesn’t go well.[48] 

Better Summary: Just read the prologue.  One of the greatest prologues I’ve ever read.  And if you don’t want to read the book after reading the prologue, you should probably ignore the rest of this post, because our literary taste probably doesn’t overlap.

Abbreviated Summary: Jesuits in Space.

30 pages in, I told my reading group, “This is the novel I am trying to write, only mine is in the middle of the Pacific…and not nearly as good.”[49][50]



Summary: The Speculative Fiction community sometimes calls Ted Cheing the ‘most decorated author per word.’  He has written about a dozen short stories and has won four Nebulas and three Hugos.[51]  This is a collection of some of those works.[52]

‘Stories of your Life,” the story that gives the compilation its name may be the greatest piece of fiction I have ever read.  With one exception, every other story in this anthology is at least ‘great’ and several are ‘phenomenal’.   


[1] When I started blogging I committed to praising at least as much culture as I criticized, and that I would try to err on the side of praise.  The critics work is cheap.  It takes years to build and seconds to tear down.  (Note, I wrote this sentence before I wrote the previous post, which essentially explains why.)
[2] “Short human words were never like a short Martian word — such as "grok" which forever meant exactly the same thing. Short human words were like trying to lift water with a knife. And (God) had been a very short word.”  Also, the placement of ‘grok’ in Mad Men was perfect.
[3] "My dear, I used to think I was serving humanity … and I pleasured in the thought. Then I discovered that humanity does not want to be served; on the contrary it resents any attempt to serve it."
[4] That is just my literary analysis.  However, since SIASL was more philosophy than literature here’s my take on its content.  While it was sub-mediocre as a work of literature, it was horrific as philosophy.  If this is what people believed in the 60s, no wonder boomers are so simultaneously self involved and moralistic.
[5] OK, that’s a little sarcastic, but yes, it was thematically heavy handed.
[6] An observant reader might be skeptical that both of my ‘worst books’ featured anti-Christian themes and could reasonably conclude that I can’t separate polemic from art.  I would respond, ‘check out the top two books on the list.’  Both of my favorite books are full of religious themes but aren’t by Christians and are often antagonistic to my world view.  But I loved them.  The problem with Nation and SIASL is that they were polemic first and art (very) secondarily.  Which, is precisely what I am concerned about in my writing.
[7] This is a perfect example of what Jamie Smith (cribbing Charles Taylor) calls the challenge of our ‘cross pressured’ age (see How (Not) to be Secular in my non-ficiton list, next).  Secularism is not just a subtraction story because as we disenchanted the world western culture was not content to release meaning.  So the modern secular creates a new ‘cultural imaginary’ to rescue meaning from biology, but is rarely self aware of the construct of its new canonical ‘additive’ story.
[8] Not a spoiler, we’re told in like the 5th sentence.
[9] I recently read that just like art departed from representation when photography became common, the literary novel departed from plot when film took over middle brow story telling.  But I reject both as false dichotomies.  Photography does not make representational art obsolete and film makes imagination engaging story telling, arguably, more important.
[10] “I was a normal child. Which is to say, I was selfish and I was not entirely convinced of the existence of things that were not me,
[11] In trophic ecology, a 4 layer terrestrial chain (four levels organisms that each eat the next one down) is like the holy grail.  There is a prof at UCD who is famous for discovering one.  So my favorite little detail of this book was the cosmic cascade and the implications for trophic ecology.
[12] “Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
[13] Graveyard book excepted.  That book was great.  I think the children’s literature genre might temper Gaiman’s darkness in helpful ways.
[14] “I knew enough about adults to know that if did tell them what had happened, I would not be believed. Adults rarely seemed to believe me when I told the truth anyway.”
[15] Robert Jordan died 75% of the way into the series.   Brandon Sanderson (of Writing Excuses, see non-fiction post) took it over for the last three books.
[16] I think I’m contractually obligated to use that quote, some say the greatest opening line in sci fi (and maybe fiction) even though 25 years later its an anachronism.  The 25th anaversery edition I listened to included a preface by the author about how the book aged.  Well, it aged better than many classic sci fi novels half its age.  There is a transcendet pay phone scene (Gibson cites the failure to forsee portable communication devices his greatest miss)…but mostly, it was prescient.
[17] James Hynes  from Iowa state (see my non-fiction list coming soon) made the case that Gibson borrowed a pretty standard Noir thriller plot (think Maltese Falcon) that he set in a totally original (for the time) sci fi world.
[18]I read one plot summary that said ‘you could accuse Gibson of falling into a clichéd hacker stereotype…if hacker’s existed when he wrote.’
[19] **Spoiler: Hint - the climax includes a confrontation with the Touring police
[20] This is a weird part of being an amateur sci fi writer…transcendent metaphor is bitter sweet.  Part of me appreciates the difficulty of apt metaphor is and surges with wonder when it happens, and part of me is filled with longing, the desire to paint a picture of something in analogy that ‘shows’ it better than film could.
[21] “There is a savage beast in every man, and when you hand that man a sword or spear and send him forth to war, the beast stirs.”
“A harp can be a dangerous as a sword, in the right hands.”
[22]Lord Seaworth is a man of humble birth, but he reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of was my rights. I had the cart before the horse, Davos said. I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.”
[23] People always compare I&F with LOTR.  And that makes sense, both are rich narratives with deep characters and richly built worlds with centuries of back story.  But there are two big contrasts.  LOTR happens in a world that is gradually disenchanting, while I&F happens in a world that is gradually re-enchanting.  But somewhat counter-intuitively, LOTR is still a story of the struggle of courage and justice against the push of evil even if hope is lost, while I&F is a story about the victory of caprice and pragmatism against honor and justice.
[24] This is a quote from someone.  I don’t remember who.
[25] Or should I say, Snow…or River…or Sand.
[26] Martian is a fiction celebrity, which means he gets to write unedited.  This is never a good idea.  And so, as brilliant as his fiction is, it suffers from the bloat of indulgence.  That’s fine.  In fact, I love it.  I am reading the books after the shows as midrash, a sort of canon fan fic.  You could say I’m reading them for the bloat.   But the television version had to cut the bloat by necessity, distilling the finest plot and dialogue, mixing it with superb acting and visually arresting locations, and mostly outstanding direction.
[27] After finishing season 4 of GOT, we went into ‘tv reconnaissance mode’ sampling different shows each night we had visual media time, rejecting each in turn, until we gave up…like literally, canceling Netflix for a while.
[28] And when I go back through the books I realze that I missed some of the plot points…but I do not care.
[29] Incedentally “sotries for the children to make them behave” describes my position on religion as a 10 year old.
[30] Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old travelling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray.
[31] It had dumped the other two back there somewhere, leaving them stranded in some damp sanctuary or stuffy lecture hall while it made a beeline for the topless bars, and it had dumped culture along with them: music and painting and poetry and plays.
[32] Which is often the best kind of sequel.
[33] I also feel like
[34] Two other songs by Dawes worth checking out: “When my time comes” and “Window Seat” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH8Jjz6PRYk
) -  thought the latter may appeal especially to me, as I hit Platinum status and crossed the quarter-million mile mark on a single airline this year (approaching half a million on all carriers life-time).
[35] A fictional genre I have loved since my Kierkegaard phase (I wrote something like 6 papers on SK in seminary) and have experimented with.
[36]How was buffalo?  Like a vision of the apocalypse.”
“We have reached the point where ignorance and neglect are the best we can hope for in a ruler.”
[37] http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/lev-grossman/  My favorite quote: “…keep your nerve. If talent exists, that is talent.”  Also “Being a writer isn’t like being a musician. You don’t have to get it right every day. The wonderful thing about being a writer is, you only have to get it right once.”
[38] Full disclosure: I love Narnia* almost as much as the protagonist of this Novel.

*The Magicians exists in a world where the Harry Potter books exist (and the students make reference to them) but Narnia is actually replaced by a fictional series called Fillory.  I think both choices were wise.  Grossman ends up doing such violence to Fillory (and its author) that I would not have stood by and watched him S%#$ on Narnia like that (and I assume he had too much affection for Narnia to allow himself an all out assault).
[39] This story is a little uncanny given the recent decision to remake Ghostbusters with an all female cast, and I think weighs in on both sides of the tension.  Which is why, for all the polemical potential of its title, I loved the humanity of this story.  I love how it tries to humanize ‘the other’…even when ‘the other’ is the SWM.  I love the protagonist’s complex intersectionality*, which goes mostly un-explored but lies always beneath the surface.  And I love that a story called “The Black Feminist Guide” includes a smarmy SWM character the author seems to actually like, choosing exploration over polemic.  Maybe this is self serving.  The conversation in speculative fiction makes me feel unwelcome as a SWM…and maybe it should…maybe there are too many SWM in speculative fiction and I should stick to my STEM wheelhouse (yes, another SWM dominated field…I will write a post on privilege at some point…as soon as I have something useful to say…so maybe never).   But I found this story more than engaging, entertaining and clever (though it was all those things).  I found it loving.

*Leaving the character’s intersectionality unexplored, as an under-the-hood dissonance, was arguably more effective than spelling it out.
[40] This summer I lead a reading group where we read and discussed “Short Science Fiction with Religious Themes” which basically consisted of Ted Chang’s works (see below) and this wonderful story.  Of course, it is a deconstruction of Bish’s “Case of Concience,” which with Canticle for Lebowitz and the Sparrow, makes up the ‘trilogy of monasitic Sci-Fi,” a very specific sub-genre, and the tradition I found myself in with my first novel.
[41] Selkie Stories is also great (look up Selkie on Wiki first if you don’t know what they are) but Honey Bear captured my experience precisely, which is part of the idiosyncrasy of taste.
[42] Robinson is considered among the vanguard of hard Science Fiction.  Plus, he’s from my town.  I decided I was overdue to read the Mars series.
[43] Another book where we learn of one of the main character’s death on the first page, but he doesn’t die until most of the book is over.
[44] Every ‘how to write fiction’ book I’ve read rejects this idea.  They say ‘good characters can redeem a flat setting but you can’t get away with the opposite.’  But hard sci-fi like the Mars series  or Necromancer, or more recently, Glasshouse, the characters, while good, are secondary to setting, and we’re ok with that.  This also gives me a little hope, since setting is about the only think I am consistently pretty good at (which is probolby not unusual for a scientist trying his hand at sci-fi).
[45] In her great little blog post Sophia S (see Honey Bear below) said something like “I describe my science fiction as character driven, but my insecurities say that is code for ‘my science isn’t that strong.’”
[46] Ok, that is proverbial in the sense that I just made it up.  It is a very new cyber-proverb, borrowed from a passé baseball concept.
[47]“Anne can work up some agnosticism with a couple beers in her but I’m a flat out atheist.”

 “I’ve been married at least 4 times to 4 different men...They’ve all been named George Edwards, but believe me the man waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married.”
[48] Again, not a spoiler, she reveals the tragic mission end in the first few pages. 
[49] My friend Alex then said one of the nicest things someone said to me this year when I shared this with my reading group, “That’s funny, because as I read this I thought, this totally seems like the sort of thing Stanford would write.”
[50] I am 70% convinced that this whole novel is fan fic of Canticle for Leibowitz, allowing that classic novel to ask the question, what if the Vatican was responsible for our first contact with cosmic neighbors.
[51] And reportedly turned down one Hugo nomination because he was unsatisfied with the story.
[52] Cheing, arguably one of the modern genius’ of speculative fiction, never quit his day job.  I am beginning to wonder if ‘going pro’ can be antagonistic to great writing, forcing you to pump out saleable prose rather than craft a few great works.  Authors like Chein and George Saunders (who topped last year’s list with a collection of shorts) encourage me, because I’d love to develop my speculative fiction to the point that people read it…but I never foresee giving up my day job for it. 

Also, both Cheing and George Saunders (who held the top spot on my fiction list last year) found their way into short, genre bending, speculative fiction through the woods of technical writing.  I used to think technical writing and creative writing were antagonistic.  I don’t any more.  The precision and economy of clear technical writing IS THE SAME SKILL as the modern conventions of short speculative story telling.  This gives me hope that I might already have some of my 1 million words in already.

5 comments:

Justin Bower said...

Excellence...I haven't been reading much sci-do or fantasy lately so there are some great recommendations here. I'm glad you enjoyed Swords. Sadly, for me that was the high point of the series. I think we had slightly different takes on Ocean...I almost wanted more, not less, but lived his world building on an intimate scale rather than the macro level of I&F. It was one of the most satisfying I read this year. I look forward to reading this post more thoroughly when I'm not skimming over the summaries of books I plan to read this coming year. I may have to go back and reread Neuromancer with adult eyes...you seemed to get a lot more out of it than I did on first read, though I certainly enjoyed it.

Amy said...

Aghh when I saw this on Facebook I got so excited! Some good stuff to add on to my reading list here, and you taught me the word "polemic".

The Magicians Trilogy was one of my favorite things I read this year, in fact it made such a strong impact on me that I read all three books over a few months later. It also is really interesting to compare with Donna Tartt's other book, The Secret History, which I greatly preferred over The Goldfinch. I was dying to talk to someone about the Magicians but I felt like it wasn't really the kind of thing I could recommend to just anyone. You summed up the appeal perfectly though.

I love Margaret Atwood and so I had to read the Maddadam books this year too. There is going to be an HBO series?!? The third book was a bit disappointing for me, but I liked the first two. Her views of the dystopian future are always based just a little too much in present day reality...and therefore quietly terrifying.

I started The Sparrow but didn't finish, maybe I should give it another shot. I also have to agree with the above comment about Storm of Swords being the high point...the following 2 books take a steep dive bomb in my opinion.

stanford said...

Thanks Friends.

Justin, I think Neromancer is more important and impressive that great literature. I'd go for Gibson's later work which is less manic and more literary (and, frankly, just easier).

Amy, I love that you've read most of this list. I agree about Magicians, like I&F it can be difficult to 'recommend,' and it was even difficult to explain why I liked it so much until I sat down to write it.

Liz Mallory said...

If I were still around, I'd ask about your reading group and want to join. You seem to have a wide selection in subgenre, quality, and the balance between entertainment vs philosophizing - which is a good thing.

I love The Sparrow. Read it in high school and it greatly affected the way I see God, especially as a trauma survivor.

Interestingly, I got the complete opposite vibe as you about Nation. Nic and I are re-audio-ing it right now because I love it so much. The struggle between theism and humanism was, I thought, well balanced, even though yes it tipped toward the humanist side. But everyone gets something different when they read.

2015 recommendation for you: Otherbound.

Corrie said...

Curious how you will continue on with Robert Jordan. I couldn't get on past... book... five...? or maybe four? George RR Martin might be able to skillfully create high fantasy and thick books that follow only half the characters and keep you going, but Jordan couldn't. On the other hand, the series was finished off by one of my fav authors (as you know) so I may have to return to it at some point.

Thanks for your recommendations - I'll have to add some onto my list!