Monday, January 4, 2016

Best of 2015's Books

Jealous of Couch2Moon’s ability to participate in the discussions surrounding 2014’s new releases and subsequent award ballots, I vowed at the beginning of 2015 I would significantly up the number of new books I read published in the year.  I haggled with publishers (not as easy as one might think), gleaned NetGalley (a poorer and poorer prospect each month), and ultimately scraped the deep folds of my wallet more than a few times staying ‘up to date.’  But I did it—at least as much as can reasonably be done in this age of ubiquitous publishing.  Perhaps in another post I’ll record my thoughts on the experience (it is, after all, very different than the relaxed, world-is-my-oyster view to the thousands of reading possibilities available from the past century), but for the moment will suffice at briefly summarizing the books of genre interest published in 2015 that I read.

If my rating system is any indication, there were no masterpieces produced in 2015, but there were some near misses.  A tie, I’m picking Anne Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora as 2015’s best.  Polar opposites in many ways, they nevertheless stood out, and certainly are worthy of representing genre in the larger arena.  Honorable mentions include: Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit, James Morrow’s Galapagos Regained, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, Chris Beckett’s Mother of Eden, Oliver Langmead’s Dark Star, Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, and Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities.  Below find a breakdown of all twenty-eight 2015 releases I read, by rating.

But before going there, I should note there were several books I didn’t read for one reason or another, but believe they have a very good chance of making it high on the list.  This includes Ian Macleod’s Frost on Glass, Ian McDonald’s Luna (waiting for the other half of the duology to be published before reading), Catherynne Valente’s Radiance (no excuses for not reading), Martin Millar’s The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies (damn expensive Subterranean), James Bradley’s Clade (damn books published only in Australia), Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me (no excuses), and the books Nina Allan is recommending as year’s best (which I’d never heard of until her post).  Hopefully I’ll get a chance to read these books, and as I do, add them to the list.  Perhaps there is a masterpiece hiding among them?


4.5 ****************************

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock – As delicate as its title, Charnock’s second novel explores internalized and externalized art from across a temporal spectrum of gendered perspectives.  Where much of contemporary genre seems bent on slapping the reader in the face with over-the-top gender assumptions and inversions, Charnock plays her cards in literary (read: sublime) fashion.  Part historical fiction, part mimetic, and part near-future extrapolation, this is a book that will probably not get much attention—shunned by those looking for fast action and familiar plot lines—but definitely should be looked at by people interested in the intelligent side of sf.

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson – A novel that received a lot of attention in 2015, the praise is deserved.  Considered by some his best ever (I think at least on par with Blue Mars), this story of a failed generation starship is, for all that it’s set in space, a re-contextualization of science fiction’s tendency to focus on the hope getting to the stars offers.  There are a number of points that stimulate the participant reader, and a strong, increasingly pertinent agenda at its heart.  

4.0 **************************

Galapagos Regained by James Morrow – Something of a return for Morrow, he shows the literary scalpel still glitters.  Galapagos Regained is a superbly satirical examination of Darwin’s evolutionary theory that takes a young woman around the world on a picaresque adventure to decide the value of religion in the face of science.

Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett – Sequel to the successful Dark Eden, Mother doesn’t quite meet the same standard but comes close.  Wisely exploring new areas and themes available on the Christmas tree planet Eden rather than rehashing old material, there can be no denying the importance of its message, however.

Dark Star by Oliver Langmead – Beautifully visualized cybernoir written in epic verse (yes, epic verse), Langmead’s story does not plumb new depths story-wise but explodes with color and vitality in presentation.  A very different, wonderful read—Unsung Stories publishes extremely few novels, but what they do publish is worthwhile.

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand – After a few years break, Hand is back with an amazing story of a Robert Johnson deal with the devil done in rural England that involves a folk band with an unnaturally talented guitarist.  Hand’s crisp style effortlessly cycling through the VH1 Storyteller’s narrative structure, she proves she’s back in the groove after a couple year absence from the novel scene.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – After more than a decade of only short fiction, 2015 saw Ken Liu’s first novel.  The dam apparently was ready to burst; it’s a big one.  Revisioning the canonical Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms for the contemporary era, Liu creates a high fantasy world and pits two brothers against one another in an attempt to transcend the most absurd of male heroism. 

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson – Looking at human social networks from an entirely new perspective, Wilson’s novel, like Robinson’s, may be his best ever.  Plot is a touch thin, but the premise is so richly developed that it supersedes the story and forces the reader to ask some very big questions about the connections between relationships, and their inherent importance.

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman – No pun intended, Gilman’s novel is something of a dark horse.  Released about the same time as Stephenson and Robinson’s highly publicized novels, it seems to have gone overlooked.  A brooding, introspective work with more than one layer, it’s a novel whose import blossoms with time rather than immediatey after turning the last page.  About two women, one who gets lost in an alien culture and the other assigned to track her, Gilman tackles many gender and cultural issues from the same perspective as Tiptree Jr., but with less anxiety - rounder edges, as it were. 

3.5 ************************

Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson – Follow up to 2014’s Europe in Autumn, Hutchinson is another perspective on his post-EU Europe.  The setting remains the same, but new places are explored as a pocket universe is discovered.  Autumn remaining the better novel, Hutchinson nevertheless takes his concept in an entertaining direction.

3.0 **********************

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margret Helgadottir – While the author questioned my labeling the book YA, I stick by the evidence.  Low assumptions made of reader intelligence; romance revolves around covert glances and stomach butterflies; story and its contributing elements are presented in simple-simple terms; and the majority of protags are teenagers with relative concerns.  Despite the maudlin approach, the braided story structure works well and the prose is clean. I’m sure others find the story engaging even if I didn’t, hence the middling rating.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi – This novel is for me the point at which Bacigalupi’s formula for writing became monotonous.  Create as dreary a scenario as possible and put good people through its wringer in contrived fashion, all toward elucidating some grand environmental message.  We’ve seen nearly this exact formula in every novel since The Windup Girl.  In terms of delivering this formula, The Water Knife may be Bacigalupi’s most accomplished attempt.  Also, there is some backhanded constructive criticism, and he does choose to close the novel on a subtle note.  Nevertheless, the hammer of grimdark sci-fi falls so hard as to knock the novel out of  reality—and reality is precisely what the novel needed to be relevant.

Glow by Ned Beauman – For lovers of exuberant prose (e.g. Paul Di Filippo, Michael Chabon, Nick Harkaway, or David Mitchell), Beauman’s third novel is an attempt at obtuse cyberpunk that is indeed linguistically fun, but plot-wise perhaps tries to be too clever.  About a young man’s pursuit of the perfect drug, he’s taken high on a chain of corporate conspiracies (and confuscations).

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson – Stephenson has taken full advantage of his popularity to expand his oeuvre in directions he wants.  This is to be commended.  In Seveneves’ case, however, he expanded into masturbatory tech land, and as a result created a narrative which assigns technical details significantly more weight than all other aspects of the book.  Undoubtedly entertaining, but overdone.

2.5 ********************

Pelquin's Comet by Ian Whates – Very standard space opera fair; Whates knows exactly what he’s writing, and produces another specimen.  For what it is, it’s fun, it’s just not an ambitious work.

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Stereotype victim, Moreno-Garcia attempted to write an adult story of real people dealing with real problems, but due to her insistence on using stereotypical characters and scenes, failed to fulfill its potential.

2.0 ******************

The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord – This is a novel which has words printed on the page but which fail to penetrate the mind.  Dry as a desert (an appropriately dull simile), The Galaxy Game does little to entice the reader to continue reading, and as a result is a flat, uninspiring read—so uninspiring I couldn’t conjure a review.  

Lena’s Nest by Rosalie Warren – A very naïve book, this story of a woman awaking in the future and forced to come to terms with the fact she is a virtual existence living inside a computer had a lot of potential.  First time author Warren, however, couldn’t capitalize, and as a result the reader is left with a fairly melodramatic story that indicates the cyberpunks—Pat Cadigan, for example—did this sort of thing better.

1.5 ****************

The Builders by Daniel Polansky – Juvenile fiction in the negative sense, this tale of anthropomorphized forest animals attempting Godfather-esque revenge is bare bones material at best.

Twelve Kings of Sharakhai by Bradley Beaulieu – Perfunctorily enough written, Beaulieu’s novel is nevertheless more commercial product than art.  Clinging to the coattails of more original writers, the story is formulaic sex/violence in an epic fantasy world that one can almost feel being written to appease the market gods.


4.0 **************************

The Feminine Future ed. by Mike Ashley – Perhaps my biggest and most pleasant reading surprise of the year, this anthology of stories by women culled from late 19th and early 20th century magazines and journals succeeds in so many ways I thought it wouldn’t.  My negative expectation not gender related, it was the time period which had me dreading the prospect (oh no, more pulp…).  This is what made the political awareness of the stories, several with gender-bending twists waaaaaay ahead of their time, such a pleasant surprise. 

3.5 ************************

Sleeps with Angels by Dave Hutchinson - Essentially Hutchinson’s collected fiction and best-of all in one, this collection brings together almost all the author’s short fiction to date.  Each story subtle, singular, and polished, Hutchinson’s is a quiet name, but one worth more than the attention it receives.

Meeting Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan – The best of the Strahan’s Infinity series to date, he set the theme as ‘future shock’ and lets some well-known and some lesser-known names have their take on the subject. I wouldn't be surprised if any number of these stories receive wider recognition in 2016.

3.0 **********************

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 9 ed. by Jonathan Strahan – Where Strahan expounds upon the multi-cultural state of sf&f short fiction in the introduction, the stories he actually anthologizes are anything but.  Three-quarters of the authors making repeat appearances from previous of his best-ofs, only a tiny amount hold the international/multi-cultural label.  But looking at the actual stories, even they were sometimes lackluster.  Certainly Ken Liu’s “The Long Haul,” Rachel Swirsky’s “Grand Jete,” Caitlin Kiernan’s “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)”, Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America,” and Usman T. Malik’s “The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” are praise worthy, but overall 2014 was not as good a year as 2006 or 2008 were, for example.

Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction – Despite containing some fresh, visually impacting stories, Tachyon rushed this one out to soon, and with a poor title.  Rajaniemi’s oeuvre simply not ready to be ‘collected,’ waiting a few more years for a solid selection of ten-twelve stories to appear would have produced higher quality fiction, not to mention offered the chance to reconsider the title.  As it stands, we get everything, from a couple really good to a few unpublished (i.e. back drawer) shorts from an author who has yet to fully establish himself.

Saint Rebor by Adam Roberts – Roberts’ third collection brings together eleven stories: five previously published in magazines and elsewhere, and seven original to the collection.  From Liberace to SETI, robots to gene control, Roberts pushes a lot of interesting genre buttons, all from his unique perspective.  Adam Robots the superior Roberts’ collection, Saint Rebor contains a couple of gems, and likewise a couple one-offs that may not have found the light of day elsewhere.

2.5 ********************

Old Venus ed. by Gardner Dozois & George R.R. Martin – More lets-dredge-the-retro-pits-for-modern-pulp, Old Venus conscripts modern mainstream writers to produce imitation pulp in honor of the Golden Age’s fascination with the green planet.  A monotonous anthology (here we go, more steamy jungles, more froggy aliens, more revolutions/slave uprisings, more…) is no more engaging than the stories they are attempting to pay homage to.  There are a couple of exceptions (aren’t there always), but all in all an anthology too homogenous for its own well being (but sure to be snapped up by Hugo lovers world-wide).  I have a feeling Catherynne Valente’s Radiance revisits Venus in more stimulating fashion.

1.5 ****************

The Best of Kate Elliot by Kate Elliot– To be open, I read only about a third of the stories in this collection before the poorness of the writing disengaged me from the ideas it was attempting to communicate.  I wrote a review detailing the poorness of the writing in one of the stories, here.


  1. Now I'm jealous. Wow, you hit 2015 hard! Having only read one, two, three, THREE 2015 novels, mwahahaha... (and two novellas), I'm with you on Aurora. You and Nina Allan have already convinced me of Charnock, so she's officially on the list, as is Oliver Langmead, which I had to fight myself to put down after just skimming the first page. Your positive recommendation of Morrow from earlier last year (and because I enjoyed Towing Jehovah) has also convinced me to check out Galapagos Regained. And Gilman popped up on my radar because of Ian Sales.

    Even though I've read only a few 2015s, I have much to say about them. Lots of thoughts. I've halfway convinced myself to post full reviews, but we'll see...

    I rated Europe at Midnight higher than you did, although I know exactly the reasoning for your lower rating and it almost disappointed me, too. Autumn is more beautifully written; the narrative distance for those rich metaphors and that incisive characterization is missing in Midnight. Being primarily a first-person double-agent novel with a Dickian reality-twist, though, I don't know if Midnight could bear the weight of Autumn's prose. (Also, it was probably written more quickly than the first one.) However, I was ultimately more entertained and provoked by the ideas in Midnight and ended up viewing it as the more important of the two novels... in fact, I partly think Midnight should be read before Autumn, though it would ruin Autumn's ending (sort of, maybe, who cares?). I am also tempted to mail copies to all of my old professors, just because they would get a kick out of the Campus.

    I love this rundown of the 2015s you've read! It's always fun to compare thoughts!

    1. I think I now understand why you read so many 2014 releases (in 2014) but fewer 2015 releases. Keeping up with the cult of the new, it's interesting, but also something of a rat race, not to mention limiting. I suspect my 2016 will be more like your 2015 in terms of new releases...

      You write you were "more entertained and provoked" by Europe at Midnight compared to Autumn, and therefore ended up seeing it as the "more important" of the two novels. I'm curious why, particularly the important bit. :) For me, "important" implies the novel expresses, exposes, or questions some significant aspect of existence - a representation of the human condition, as it were. But for as well-written and interesting the premise is for Hutchinson's novels, I don't think they are at heart political (in the broad sense of the word). But my definition of "important" is but one of many, many in sf.

      Gilman's Dark Orbit is worth looking into. It's a very dense, thought-provoking read that I'm still mulling over. If there's any justice, it should appear on an award ballot or two. The Tiptree suits it best, and as such, would be better for everyone were it on the Hugo, which, of course, it has very little chance at in this day and age...

  2. It is hard to keep up with new fiction, and that seems to be the theme on a lot of blogs lately. I also think I managed to scratch the "have an opinion on all the shortlists" itch and now I'm just not as itchy to read new SF anymore. It was a good experience to test out my BS-detector when it comes to overblown claims and I was mostly accurate about what I would enjoy and what I assumed was being oversold. I can see this being part of a cycle for every few years, a good exercise to test the waters, but now my interest is drawn back to the "classics" and other things. Of course, that could change tomorrow by the next BEST SF BOOK EVER PUBLISHED award-bait.

    The Europe series is all about borders, and because he withholds the reasoning for the Campus border for most of the 2nd novel, it invokes all kinds of readerly speculations that feel incredibly relevant to today's geopolitical landscape. I can see it being an era-defining event akin to Stand on Zanzibar, not in style, but in the extremes it goes to demonstrate the lunacy of the era. Is there anything else that's as precise and hyperbolic in post-2000 SF? I also think Midnight has the potential to attract the more general genre reader, whereas Autumn might feel too heavy to some, so opening that kind of style and extrapolation to a wider audience is a pretty big deal.

    Now you've really sold me on Dark Orbit.