Monday, January 2, 2017

Best of 2016's Books

2016 is come to an end, and it’s time to take a look back and offer some first impressions (more solid impressions, of course, requiring time for the books to filter and settle where they will). 

Overall, I would say 2016 was a good year.  Not great, not average, good.  That bland pronouncement can be spiced up by the fact China Mieville made a strong return, releasing two of the best books he’s ever written.  Tim Powers likewise published two novels/novellas in 2016, one of which at least proved he is still one of the most pure storytellers on the market.  (I have yet to read the other.)  A debut novella by Haris A. Durrani made an impression for the strong interplay of the fantastical and personal).  Paul Kearney abandoned epic fantasy to return to his roots of literary fantasy—and made it a welcome return.  Don Delillo dipped into science fiction in glacial, existential form.  The ever-unpredictable Bruce Sterling brought us retro-Futurism in contemporary, politically relevant form.  And Kij Johnson revised Lovecraft in solid fashion that goes against some of the grains of contemporary gender discussion, while going with others (natch).  In the short fiction arena, I got my hands on several quality anthologies and collections, which as a whole had a bit more shine than those I read from 2015.  The curated effort by Jacob Weisman Invaders, Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell, Neil Williamson’s Secret Language, Ken Liu’s Invisible Planets, and Michael Swanwick’s Not So Much, Said the Cat—all made for a refreshing break from the gushing wealth of vanilla available on the market these days.

But there must be a “best”, and for novel/novella in 2016, as close as the competition was, I’m going with Dexter Palmer’s Version Control.  Portraying 21st century western existence like no book I’ve yet encountered, Palmer digs into the psyche of social media and big data in a time travel story that is anything but time travel.  The characters are drawn from real life.  The technological concerns are in direct relation to the evolution of society, culture, and individuality.  The meaning of science is brought into focus in a way beyond good and evil.  And above all an existential questing for identity and understanding in this milieu is examined.  Palmer touches upon a dearth of issues redolent in contemporary life without trivializing emotion or appearance, getting to the heart of life in the West in the process.  A couple of the characters are slightly larger than life, the core, however, were plucked direct from the street—quirks, scars, motivations, confused beliefs, egos, and all as they deal with life as it currently exists in the US.

Choosing the “best” collection/anthology was likewise tough, but ultimately I’m selecting The Unreliable Guide to London edited by Kit Caless and Gary Budden.  An anthology purporting to be an account of the lesser-known corners and alleyways of England’s most (in)famous city, what the reader gets is a wide variety of vignettes and scenes, character portrayals and weekend accounts, all of which stray ever so slightly beyond the fuzzy bounds of reality in locales Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Dr. Who never set foot upon.  Most of the writers who provided content are young, up-and-coming Brits with an eye to avoid familiar styles and form, all of which results in some off-kilter, literary, sometimes experimental, and always engaging fiction that indeed presents a view to a place many people know from fiction and media, but certainly not from the points of view portrayed.

I didn’t read Catherynne Valente's superb 2015 Radiance until 2016—a pity as it would have given the books I chose as best of 2015 a strong run for their money.  This leads me to look over the books I didn’t get to in 2016 and ask: will I regret not reading them sooner?  I remain curious about Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World, Tricia Sullivan's Occupy Me, Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey, Christopher Priest's The Gradual, and Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories.  And I'm sure there are others that will pop up on the radar only after the close of the year.  Regardless, the following are brief summaries of the books I read published in 2016, broken down by rating, first novels, then collections/anthologies:

Novels and Novellas

4.5 ******************************************************************
Zero K by Don Delillo – Another dark, foreboding novel from Delillo, this time the author examines the eccentric wealthy’s fascination with cryogenic freezing, and the hope for a return to life at some unknown point in the future.  About the son of a man who perfected the program for enticing such people, the chilly mood complements its concepts as Delillo parses out mortality in the face of existence.

This Census-Taker by China Mieville – Largely unquantifiable, This Census-Taker straddles a lot of lines.  From its position within genre (horror? fantasy? Weird? A new category?) to style (Concrete? Abstract? Magic realist? Just plain Weird?), Mieville tills fresh ground for himself, and possibly even for literature, in the memoirs of an incarcerated man regarding his time as a boy in a strange home on a hill with a seemingly abusive father.  All perpetually a fingernail’s breadth away from making replete sense, Mieville really pushed the envelope for his own skills and produced a truly unique piece of fiction.

Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling – Futurist-punk with amazing artwork, Tachyon pulled out all the stops for this novella, choosing to include not only story, but also wonderful (and relevant) graphics and a handful of essays on the various ideas influencing the story.  About a mini-anarchy on the Adriatic Sea in mid-20th century (rooted in real world history), Sterling conjures his now singular style to toss peanuts at certain political movements. 

4.0 *********************************************************
The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson – Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknwn Kadath” revised for the 21st century, Johnson (unfortunately) imitates Lovecraft’s prose, but chooses to break the original’s mold from a gender perspective.  About a traditional woman coming to terms with the modern generation, Johnson’s conclusion is sure to please and upset, depending who you ask.  (Me: please).

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney – After several years of writing epic fantasy, Paul Kearney returns to his literary roots in 2016’s The Wolf in the Attic.  Set in Oxford post-WWI, a young immigrant named Anna and her father try to scrape a living together.  Involved in a bizarre occurrence out late one night, Anna’s world begins to spin—closer and closer to primitivism as Gypsy legend and her father’s secret work collide.  While there is surely a wide audience for epic fantasy, The Wolf in the Attic is a welcome return to literary fantasy from Kearney.

The Technologies of the Self by Haris A. Durrani – In my original review I described Durrani’s debut novella as Lit Fic 101 with elements of the fantastical twisting the shape.  I stick by it.  Post-colonialism from the point of view of a Dominican-Pakistani-Muslim, Durrani sublimates any political or social agenda into a personal story of a young man trying to understand his identity in contemporary East Coast US.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville –An s-bomb has been set off in Paris, and the creations of the surrealists wander the streets.  A man and a woman try to survive the chaos that erupts, while the Nazis try to rein in the strange phenomenon for their own evil plans.  Mieville’s homage to French surrealism, this is probably a novel that bubbled in the author’s boiler for some time. 

3.5 ************************************************
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee – Space opera done up in tight, rigorous prose that pops off the page in colorful imagery, the novel appears to tackle power hierarchies in intelligent fashion, but being only the first in a trilogy, cannot be fully esteemed. 

Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers – Powers a consummate tale-teller, his 2016 novella Down and Out in Purgatory perpetuates the idea.  About a man who goes beyond death to track down his lover’s killer, what he finds is as interesting as it is representative of humanity at large.  

The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker - While it's possible my opinion of this novel may improve with the release The Unholy Consult in 2017, for the moment, it remains the most dense, grinding affair in the Second Apocalypse series to date.  In fact the first half of a novel too large for publishing as a single volume, once again readers are left on the edge.  But there remains plenty of pay-off.  Earwa hangs in the balance....

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar – A fix-up with considerable time having been spent to integrate the individual elements, the sum, unfortunately, is still not greater than the parts.  A view into the lives of multiple characters populating a spaceport in futuristic Tel-Aviv, Tidhar attempts to portray some human reality in a pulp scene.  On some occasions he succeeds, largely due to complementary mood, but in others can’t quite pull it off.  For what it’s worth, the collection/novel does remain relatively unique for the effort Tidhar put into integrating the parts.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay – Largely Guy Gavriel Kay on autopilot, this (yet another) quasi-historical fantasy about lovers and painters, dukes and pirates in the Adriatic has all the elements that have built Kay’s reputation thus far with little to no change in mode.  Style making the novel seem sophisticated (Kay can write beautiful sentences), but any close scrutiny of the pomp reveals polyester and cheap stitching. 

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley – Rearin’ to go, this fist in the air for women’s power (Power!!!!!) has quality story, but contains elements that don’t quite sum into a coherent view upon completion. 

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan – A return of sorts for Egan (that is, to accessible fiction), the novella does not require pen and calculator to understand its portrayal of Bentham’s utilitarianism.  A setting where life on two close asteroids comes to a head, one choice will change the fate of either side, drastically.


The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese – Humor a fickle beast, perhaps this story about a kidnapped, sentient sheep will fall into other readers’ wheelhouses.  It didn’t mine.

The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster – Dead-horse storyline written with unsophisticated technique, it includes superficially portrayed elements of cultural diversity, and is thus sure to win sympathy, somewhere, but contains little if any substance beyond. 

Anthologies & Collections

Invaders ed. by Jacob Weisman – A curated anthology, Weisman brings to the table twenty-two short stories from writers typically associated with literary fiction but who dipped their pens into areas commonly considered science fiction.  The difference with mainstream sf noticeable, there is significantly stronger technique, substantive content, and human content.  Containing some high quality stories, the so-called outsiders’ perspective proves, perhaps, a guiding light instead? 

Invisible Planets ed. by Ken Liu – A compilation of short Chinese science fiction translated by Liu, Invisible Planets proves itself to be a diverse collection of tales providing a window into what’s happening in the Middle Kingdom today. From hard sf to dystopias, some things almost fantastical to light cyberpunk, there is a lot of good, interesting material, as well as a few essays on science fiction and China at large.

3.5 ****************************************************
Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick – Where most writers stick to certain furrows and grooves, the world is Swanwick’s oyster, and in Not So Much, Said the Cat, Swanwick proves he is still one of the most unpredictable, engaging writers of short fiction on the market today. 

Secret Language by Neil Williamson – An unheralded collection from an up and coming writer, Secret Language takes quotidian life and allows the fantastic and science fictional to intrude ever so slightly.  The lives of ordinary people changed or surprised by bits of the paranormal or near-future tech, one will not find flashy genre tales, rather carefully composed stories, occasionally with affected style, and almost always with more than one layer of meaning. 

A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford – Like Swanwick, Ford is a writer who never contents himself to write what the market expects, and in A Natural History of Hell he continues to prove himself one of the top contemporary writers of short fiction. 

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 10 ed. by Jonathan Strahan – Strahan continues to proclaim diversity in his year-end best-of introductions all the while including the same fold of writers year in, year out.  That being said, the anthology does take in a wide spectrum of speculative fiction, and for this is largely representative.

3.0 *********************************************
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu – Liu a victim of quantity over quality, most of what is included in this collection is worthwhile—something ten years and 100 stories would seem to fly in the face of.  At its worst manipulative and its best philosophical, the sum of the whole is nevertheless worthwhile. 

Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James Blaylock – The second omnibus from Subterranean collecting the middle period of Langdon St. Ives adventures (plus a new, previously unpublished story), once again the stories are fully complemented by the artwork of J.K. Potter in all St. Ives, and his pals, steampunk glory.

Bridging Infinity ed. by Jonathan Strahan – Too much typical hard sf (focus on daydreaming from science textbooks rather than quality prose, realistic characters, organic plotting, etc.), there are a couple good pieces, but by and large this is an anthology worth notice only for readers who don’t mind stories that pay little attention to the art of writing.

2.5 *********************************
Drowned Worlds ed. by Jonathan Strahan – An anthology brought low by the repetitiveness of the settings (yaaaaawn, yet another near-future Earth with high ocean waters…), there are a few quality tales, but in order to be truly appreciated it should be picked and put down often, and by doing so the perhaps the theme will not bore…

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