In 2014 I had more free time than usual to look through books I read prior to starting the blog, as well as read fresh books, and write reviews. (With a new child in the house, I do not expect this to continue in 2015.) The result is a review count much higher in 2014, making a large possible selection for the year-end summary, and in turn a longer ‘best of’ list than usual. Without further ado, the best books reviewed on Speculiction in 2014 are:
Gormenghast cycle by Mervyn Peake – Not only the best of the year, but Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone are some of the best of all time. Peake’s fantasy achieves the utmost in gothic subtlety (like a sublimely dark Alice in Wonderland). And don’t let anyone tell you Titus Alone is the weakest novel; the mode is indeed different, but the imagination is every bit as rich. Curse the fates that deprived us of Peake and the completion of Titus’ story.
Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon – Perhaps the single greatest science fiction novel ever written, Stapledon takes the human soul to the infinity of the universe and time in a quest to understand them all. I don’t think there is a stronger philosophical inquiry in all of genre; the jaw is truly left hanging.
China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh – A novel that feels as though it shouldn’t succeed due to the disparity of its elements, this story of a young man living in a US in the grip of Chinese power nevertheless engages the reader from page one for McHugh’s tight minimalist style, and the heartbreak and success that ensue his plight for identity and place.
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – Not only brilliant historical fantasy, this novel is likewise the greatest statement regarding feminism in Medieval speculative fiction I have yet to read. Completely re-visioning and humanizing the idea of the ‘woman warrior’, it makes laughing stock of epic fantasy. While telling the no-holds-barred story of a young woman trying to come to terms with herself, it not only circumvents all the familiar tropes but puts to shame the buxom sword-mistress. An intrinsically visceral story, it hits the reader, and hits hard.
The Light Ages by Ian Macleod – Macleod simply one of the tip-top writers working today, his lush prose, narrative control, precisely defined characters, and desire to write something beyond simple dichotomies and mainstream storylines take this steampunk text on an imaginative journey through the realities of societal evolution/revolution. The Keith Roberts of the modern generation, Macleod is deserving of so much more attention than he receives, and this is a great place to begin discovering his dark talents.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Though something of a female Nineteen Eighty-four, Atwood goes further than a corrupt system, making her story both uniquely oppressive and personal. Not satisfied, she likewise produces an ending that, unlike Orwell, transcends traditional tragedy to achieve something more.
Shriek by Jeff VanderMeer – Second Ambergris novel to appear to date, this character study of a socialite and her historian brother, while fitting into New Weird in fine, surreal fashion, goes beyond imaginative imagery to touch upon art, social movements, and the recesses of the human mind that motivate our quests in life.
Pavane by Keith Roberts – Heartbreakingly beautiful, lovingly crafted, melancholy imbuing every scene—this collection of novellas subtly conflates into a conceptual whole moving to the rhythms of social evolution. Dark, moody, and bloody brilliant.
Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo – A Weird story that digs at the creative muse in a fashion that will make the skin crawl, Di Filippo nevertheless strikes a nerve that is fully human in his story of a convalescing artist taken to dimensions even his imagination cannot dream of.
Man in a Cage by Brian Stableford – The most overlooked work of literary science fiction worthy of being etched into the halls of genre I’ve encuntered to date, Stableford produces a variegated look at the human psyche as it deals with the limits of mental and material space, the latter including space travel. At turns poetic and straightforward, reminiscent and subtly psychotic, the novel is worth mention alongside the works of Malzberg, Silverberg, Disch and other literary writers of science fiction.
“Riders of the Purple Wage” by Philip Jose Farmer – As linguistically gymnastic as a piece of writing can be, this dystopian vision of a future where labor is no longer necessary and the masses are free to spend their free time as they desire has one tongue in its cheek and the other cutting to ribbons the idea of Modernist utopia. (Yes, it’s so lexically agile it has two tongues, both sharp.) For the resulting opacity, it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly has its rewards for the curious reader.
“Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand – The truly poignant story of three men’s gift to their patron who is dying of cancer, Hand’s deft hand delivers another touching tale. The little touch of the fabulous added makes this an emotionally sensitive, timeless story impossible not to enjoy.
“The Night We Buried Road Dog” by Jack Cady – A beautiful piece of Americana, Cady’s novella looks back with nostalgia at the age of the great American automobile while turning the loneliness of driving the wide open highway into a touching story of two men dealing with aging in their own way.
“Houston, Houston Do You Read?” by James Tiptree Jr. – Slaying the glory of man in space—literally, from a gender perspective, this taughtly told tale takes the piss out of the NASA notion of male superiority beyond Earth’s atmosphere in fine fashion.
The Secret of This Book by Brian Aldiss – The most varied collection by one author I’ve read not only this year but ever, Aldiss shows that late in his career he continues to age like wine. His talents still capable of taking on more sublime hues, the collection contains plays, poetry, short stories, and novelettes in a multitude of styles—essentially becoming a mini-representation of the spectrum of speculative fiction.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – Out of any short story collection published in the 21 st century thus far, I would have to believe Chiang’s is the most guaranteed to never fall out of public attention. Each story taking months if not years to germinate and be crafted into final form, quality wins against quantity.
The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith – While the hair of most writers from the Silver Age slowy achieves the color of the era, Smith’s stories punch through it all, retaining their youth and vigour. Idiosyncratic prose, timeless scenarios, and a singular view of genre’s underlying possibilities, this collection remains as unique today as the time it was published—something few works from the Silver Age can still say.
The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard – Ultimately what has become Shepard’s magnum opus since his death earlier this year, this collection of stories, all centered around the petrifying, hill-sized dragon Griaule, feature rich prose and by turns touches of horror and humanity exploring the idea of evil. While quality wanes in the later years, there remains something at the core of the premise that outlives the last page.
Believe it or not, above is the pared-down list. There were about ten other titles I wanted to include, but didn’t—2014 a good year in reading and in revisiting what I’ve previously read.
Regarding plans for 2015, I seem to forever be in catch-up mode, and thus have no specific plans. So many good books sitting on the shelves, so many excellent recommendations from the community, and, alas, so little time. So I will continue my steady plod, trying to catch up…