Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Reads of 2015

As has become a tradition here in the bustling offices of Speculiction, we’ve gleaned 2015’s posts and chosen the best books, collections, anthologies, and short stories reviewed, regardless of when the book was originally published.  (For a summary of books published in 2015, see here.)


The Glamour by Christopher Priest – A person can expect a novel from Christopher Priest will be based on the subjectivity of perception, and The Glamour is that.  The wonderful thing is, the concept is so rich with potential one never knows in what direction Priest will take it, and by the time they’ve figured it out, they’re already wrapped up in an engaging, intellectually stimulating experience whose complexity does not match the deceivingly simple mode of presentation. The Glamour is that, too.

Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel – A novel that was released to little fanfare, and has garnered little in the decades since, it nevertheless is a fine, literary work examining the human side of life’s inexplicable, seemingly fantastical events, and the variety of sense and meaning (and madness) that humans subsequently attach to them.  Delicately satirical and oh so well written, the novel deserves more attention than it received.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson – Amidst the flurry of ever wilder genre excursions comes what some are calling Robinson’s best ever.  The story of a generation starship endeavor gone awry, Robinson puts the brakes on techno-fantasy futuristic speculation and places the focus square back on Earth.

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock – Along with Robinson’s Aurora, this was my pick for best speculative fiction novel published in 2015.  Featuring windows into the lives of three women, past, present and future, and focusing on their interaction with art, the creative process, and art in the social/public arena, it is a politicized novel, but one which wields its agenda tactfully.  Amazon reviewers looking for more of the same ol’-same ol’ were disappointed with the ending, but they, in fact, identified the novel’s most delicately expressive moment.

Soldier series by Gene Wolfe – Many people remark on the Book of the New Sun’s unreliable narrator, which, if one really gets down to it, does more of a job presenting Severian’s humanity than playing any deeper role in how events pan out.  It’s Wolfe’s Soldier novels, Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, and to some degree Soldier of Sidon, which expand the “unreliable” idea most.  About a Roman mercenary who takes a head wound during Phonecian wars on the Greek side, his resulting short-term amnesia has him remembering only one day at a time, a scroll needed to keep track of his personal history. 

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand – VH1’s Storytellers in fictional form, this long novella/short novel is a tightly written, multi-perspective account of a British folk band’s meteoric rise to fame, and their summer in a wild, abandoned manse.  I don’t know if Robert Johnson told his crossroads’ tale so well.

Dark Star by Oliver Langmead – Epic verse and science fiction are not two items that fit side by side on the shelf of genre, but in the case of Mead’s “novel,” they work perfectly together.  Vivid aesthetics inherent to rhythmic (non-rhyming) verse, this story of a detective, his addictions, and the strange case that appears before him in his dark world  burns a neon hole in the reader’s mind.

The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson – If this novel were judged for story alone, one would say it is average, normal, plain.  It’s the concept at its core, however, that is the highlight.  The strongest social bonds reorganized according to a newly discovered social algorithm (that is, rather than along blood lines), Wilson uses the concept to explore some of the deep seated meaning underlying humanity’s familial and social interaction.  One of those novels that zings for its ideas...

Lagoon by Nnedi OkoraforStranger in a Strange Land set in Nigeria, this colorful, humorous, and dramatic story captures wonderful characters amidst a capering idea.  The apprentice defeating the master, where Heinlein drowns his story in rhetoric, Okorafor expands at the personal and cultural level to grander success. 

Grainne by Keith Roberts – Not only one of the best novels I read in 2015, Grainne is one of the best of all time.  Kunstelroman written in impeccable style, the story of a young man finding himself via what can only be described as a sprite, has in addition a light dash of non-Western philosophy/spiritualism.

Galaxies by Barry Malzberg – Applying real world theory to pulp science fiction, Malzberg deconstructs the ultimate in space ships and blasters in this Derridean meta-text. Can anybody say sp ac eo per a?

The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold – Possibly the greatest time travel ever told, Gerrold dances over every trick in the book to create a very personal, meaningful metaphor of a man trying to find himself amidst a lifetime’s obstacles trying to prevent that very thing from happening.

Fools by Pat Cadigan – One of the most convoluted novels I’ve ever read, nobody does the brain twist of existence in a world where the mind is made malleable by technology than Cadigan.  An abstract novel wearing cyberpunk clothes, this is one of the best texts to come out of the sub-genre.

Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon – One the year’s biggest surprises for me, Venus Plus X takes a politically correct utopian ideal, or at least what is currently considered a utopian ideal by some, and examines it down to its nuts and bolts.  Throwing gender out the window, it is a story of a man who finds himself in an androgynous society.  More the exploration of an idea than story, the novel nevertheless sticks out for the robustness with which it digs into gender, and its thought provoking conclusion.   

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan LethemJim Minz called Lethem’s novel all style and no substance, which is perhaps to be expected from someone who publishes a large quantity of e-pulp.  The very personal story of a man who finds himself through tragedy, Lionel Essrog’s story is complemented by NYC, Tourettes, and a subtly, simply delivered mystery.  Essrog engages in such a fashion that the reader is invested in his existence (something style alone cannot accomplish), and upon the conclusion, is a person they feel they know, and be happy for.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – A novel that seemed to only gain more and more recognition when it came out (which subsequently caused many normally passive reviewers to break out a fine-toothed comb), Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel is much more bucolic than visceral, but regardless touches upon elements key to human existence amidst living, breathing human portraits.

Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling – Possibly Sterling’s best novel, this tale of Alice in post-human Wonderland is as delicately satirical as it is informed about the theories of commercial art and the possible reaction to upturning the apple cart of mortality.

Short fiction

"All the Birds of Hell" by Tanith Lee – Simply one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Mysterious, edgy, abstract, and yet poignant, the tale of a Siberian museum curator and his precious display of two frozen lovers is haunting—in a good way.

"Riding the Torch" by Norman Spinrad – I will die wanting to suck void.  This tale of an extravagant director and the steps he takes to entertain shipmates as it hurtles through the vast emptiness of space is much deeper than the candy exterior would have it.

"A Year in the Linear City" by Paul Di Filippo – Di Filippo is one of very few writers who are able to integrate pulp into their work in intelligent fashion.  This tale of a writer of ‘cosmogonic fiction’ troops through some imaginative alleys and subterranean grounds of yesteryear genre, achieving something slightly more in the process.

"Gone" by John Crowley – Crowley may be the king of mood, and this story is a perfect example of style.  I can only recommend the experience be had by others.

"Solitude" by Ursula Le Guin – About a human settlement wherein men and women live separate from one another and meet only to reproduce, it’s a great example of how science fiction can re-contextualize gender in more than politically correct fashion—in this case, human fashion.

“The Painter of Dead Women” by Edna W. Underwood – A vivid, dynamic story, Underwood tells of a woman who is taken to a ball by her husband.  But when entering the gaudy room, she finds herself in an entirely different world—one more of mind than body.

“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family” by Usman T. Malik – Countermanding the plethora of empty calorie sf&f available on the market today, Malik’s story tells of a young woman, her widowing, and the life choices she makes in a Pakistan upturned by terrorism.  The prose burns, accenting a highly purposeful, relevant story that is diverse on all fronts, new author to content.

“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan – Dynamic prose the reader can really sink their teeth into, the story transcends itself by converting a standard serial killer material into art. 

“The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson – Brilliant use of fantasy to look at slavery from an abstract yet readily relatable perspective.  That Wilson captures character voice pitch-perfect makes it all the better.

“Hawksbill Station” by Robert Silverberg – Perhaps the later novel is better, but what’s in the novella is great.  A story wherein the condemned are time traveled back to the Jurassic to live out the remainder of their lives, it captures something raw about life and the meaning of existence that a minority of sf stories do.


Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer – A middle of the road book about how to write, but a blue ribbon book in how the graphics complement content, most of the joy of “reading” Jeff VanderMeer’s guide to writing is poring over the imagery.

Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss – Not the first, but certainly one of the most comprehensive histories of science fiction ever produced, Aldiss’ tome is inevitably contentious on some points, but by and large does a great job covering the genre, from its roots to the mid-80s.

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