Friday, December 29, 2017

Best Books of 2017

Of the thousands of books published in speculative fiction in 2017, I read twenty-two, which is a slight drop compared to previous years.  Many of the books I wanted to read I was unable to get my hands on for whatever reason.  But there were still a number of good novels—Eleanor Lerman’s Stargazer’s Embassy, Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, John Kessell’s The Moon and the Other, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and R. Scott Bakker’s The Unholy Consult among them.  As the year drew to a close without a clear front-runner, I was considering giving a joint award to Kessel and Yuknavitch’s books given the engaging, intelligent, and complementary pair they form.  But then in December I read a couple of books that had spotlights from the heavens shining down upon them...

The novel I read shining brightest was Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.  As I pointed out in my review, it is the early 21st century version of Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath.  Hamid does not go into the problems innate to Islam or causes of the current conflicts in the Middle East, rather, he emphasizes that behind those two monoliths of Western concern are real humans.  Hamid puts real faces to a pair of globalized 20-somethings, Saeed and Nadia, who suddenly find themselves caught up in war they want no part of, just like the Poles or Chinese in WWII, and want to escape.  Some in the literary scene are glowing about the novel’s ‘brilliant use of genre tropes’ blah blah blah, but ignore that.  The doors in the novel are far more literary devices than teleportation machines.

Before December, I would have said George Sandison’s 2084: The Anthology is the best of the year.  But then along came a huge surprise: Joe Hill’s Strange Weather.  Containing four novellas, Hill addresses a number of contemporary Western concerns with powerful stories.  “Snapshot” uses a fantastical premise to build a meaningful understanding of Alzheimer’s.  “Afloat” takes a common metaphor and materializes it in fictional form, giving the main character a chance for second look at life.  And my favorite “Loaded” looks at the gun problem in America from a fist-to-the-gut perspective that will make any parent wince, and then want to take action.

As usual, there are many books I missed that could have impacted my final opinion, books like James Patrick Kelly’s Mother Go, Ned Beauman’s Madness Is Better Than Defeat, Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, and Omar El Akkad’s American War, and the collection/anthologies: David Brin’s Chasing Shadows, Sofia Samatar’s Tender, Ian Whates’ 2001: An Odyssey in Words, and Nick Gevers’ Extrasolar.  But so it goes. You can’t read everything—especially in today’s publishing world.   

Here is a more detailed breakdown of each novel, novella, collection, and anthology:


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

Exit West by Mohsin HamidGrapes of Wrath for 2017, Hamid’s story of two ordinary people fleeing an unnamed conflict in an unnamed Middle Eastern country highlights the current refugee and immigration issue in a very human fashion.  Giving faces to what is often perceived as a faceless horde, it’s a book shortlisted for the Man Booker for a good reason.

4.0 ************************ 
The Moon and the Other by John Kessell – Though likely the most realistic matriarchy ever created in fiction, Kessell’s story remains focused on the male interaction and reaction to it.  Set on the moon, one female-led society attempts to retain political independence as one of the patriarchies takes measures to bring it in line with the other colonies.  Primarily featuring two men, one an agent of the patriarchy who is sent to the matriarchy to soften it up, and the other a playboy living the good life among the matriarchy, Kessell does a great job avoiding utopianism all the while examining men, power, and their relationship with it.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch – A work of eco-feminism (not an area of fiction I jump to read), Yuknavitch uses a typical science fiction scenario (the affluent orbit Earth in a space station while the wretched live in a nuclear wasteland below) but focuses on humanity’s most basic, physiological aspects in telling the story of a Joan of Arc-type character’s defiance of an oppressive tyrant.  Rendered in affected, poetic prose, Yunavitch lays bare an idea that___.  Perhaps more idea than story, it remains impacting at fundamentally humanist and biological levels.  

The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad Capturing Spinrad’s irascible style in fine form, this story of a political revolution in New Orleans is as much gumbo as it is irreverent.  Lampooning conservative politics while expressing a liberal agenda, even if the reader does not agree, they will enjoy the ride.

Stargazer’s Embassy by Eleanor Lerman – A bizarre story that constantly has the reader’s mind turning, wondering what the ‘real story’ is.  About a woman who is able to see aliens lurking in dark corners, she accepts them as normal until she learns that the odd tattoo on her wrist is the same symbol the aliens use.  Not a wild bit of science fiction escapism, Lerman’s ultimate intent in the story is wholly relevant, meaning that once the ‘real story’ is finally revealed, a whole layer of meaning is granted that makes the wondering worthwhile.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley RobinsonHaving met criticism from those who blindly believe in the altruism of science and the necessity of humanity in space in 2015’s Aurora, in 2017 Kim Stanley Robinson produced New York 2140, a novel that conflates economic practice with environmental degradation.  Apparently safer ground for said pundits, the criticism switched to praise for Robinson’s depiction of a New York with fifty feet higher sea levels.  Informative exposition mixed with entertaining plot, Robinson weaves the storylines of eight different people into a narrative that ironically probably had him on the NY Times bestseller list.

The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker – The final chapter in the Aspect-Emperor series, this is the type of story ending that most if not all writers of epic fantasy aim for but oh so often fail to achieve.  Everything readers have been hoping for, The Unholy Consult is the clash of all clashes that sees all the gears put in motion come to their purpose.

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock – A realistic, humanist look at reproductive technology in the near future, Dreams before the Start of Time is something of a mosaic novel in how it switches from one character to the next, moving forward in time, and never returning to the same character.  From womb sacks to co-op parenting, it’s an interesting novel made relevant by the degree to which the characters live and breathe.

Le Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman – Going into the first novel of Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials… trilogy, I was concerned that Le Belle Sauvage would be a money grab attempting to cash in on the popularity of the first trilogy.  My concerns were misplaced.  The novel is a ripping adventure that builds upon rather than imitates the original novels.  I look forward to the next two volumes in the prequel trilogy.

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

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow – The James Morrow satire train rolls on with The Asylum of Dr. Caligari.  Returning to the theme of This Is the Way the World Ends, yet working with a World War II setting, Morrow expresses yet another anti-war sentiment, this time through the escapades of a would-be American artist who unwittingly finds himself in the employ of one of the Third Reich’s propaganda masters.  The novella is not essential Morrow, but it remains an enjoyable, well-written story with several laugh out loud moments.

Upon This Rock by David Marusek – After fifteen years away from publishing, David Marusek returned in 2017 with the oddball story of first contact in the Alaskan wilderness.  Set on the border of a national park, it tells of the park ranger Jace, his dealings with a local Christian cult, led by the evil but human Poppy, their fight over land ownership, and the strange object that falls from the sky one night.  Likely the most engaging story published in the year, Marusek takes a step back from the more ambitious fiction he wrote earlier in his career to a more classic, science fiction rendering a story that, given today’s religious and political climate in the US, retains some relevancy.

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald – If Marusek’s Upon this Rock was not the year’s most purely readable novel, than McDonald’s Luna: Wolf Moon was.  Second book in the Luna trilogy, McDonald takes the foundational story he built in New Moon and accelerates it.  A bridge book, it’s not interested in slowing things down before the third and final volume, however, meaning the so-called ‘Game of Domes’ saga continues in exciting fashion.

Metronome by Oliver Langmead – A novel that teeters on the edge of “When everything is possible, nothing is interesting.”, Metronome gets away with its smorgasbord of imagery and imagination by being a dream-based narrative.  Langmead’s debut Dark Star remains the better piece of fiction, but nobody can accuse of Metronome of being lackluster in creativity.

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

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer  A disappointment compared to the past decade of VanderMeer’s output, Borne is biopunk mythopoeia concerned about the (figurative) evolution of its characters and the effect of finding a strange little plantanimal one day.  A novella trapped in a novel’s body, the words flow but often with little meaning, meaning there is not much of substance.  VanderMeer’s style distancing the reader from the characters—what wants to be the focus of the novel—peripheral elements are forced to bear the weight, and often can’t.  

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

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth JonesAttempting to write this short blurb about Proof of Concept six months after having read it, I’m at a loss.  There was nothing significant about it.  My memory is telling me something about an augmented young woman who gets involved in an AI project that has personal and social implications…  Jones’ prose largely indirect while trying to tell a direct story, it’s not a marriage made in heaven.  The lack of buzz around this novella has reason.  

The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford – I am a huge fan of Jeffrey Ford.  He is one of the tip-top writers working in the area of speculative fiction today.  But The Twilight Pariah is not a reason why.  Not to say it’s a bad novella; it is well enough written, is structured nicely, and ticks all the boxes a haunted house story in the Lovecraftian vein, should.  But it does not have the sub-layers so much of his other fiction has.  Published by, I have the strong feeling it was a commissioned piece of fiction, which, for, often means accessible, formulaic, mainstream, etc..  This is what The Twilight Pariah is.  Not bad, rather average.

2.0 ******

Amatka by Karin TidbeckSchizophrenic, Amatka is a novel that doesn’t know what it wants to be, and therefore cannot merge its approaches into a singular narrative.  ‘Simply written’ the correct description (versus ‘poorly written’), Amatka’s prose renders a soul-less story that had good intentions but poor game plan for delivering them. 


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

Strange Weather by Joe Hill – A dynamic collection despite being only four novellas, Strange Weather was my biggest surprise of 2017.  Having previously (and wrongly) dismissed Hill as a product of his father (i.e. just another horror writer), a taste of his work in Gaiman and Sarrantino's anthology Stories made me think twice, and willing to take a chance.  Strange Weather made me change my mind.  Not just run of the mill horror, they are relevant stories, which is not something that can be said of the majority of fiction.

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

2084: The Anthology ed. by George Sandison – An anthology of original stories walking in the footsteps of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Sandison draws upon a good selection of Britain’s up and coming science fiction writers (and Christopher Priest) to take a look at the contexts, both current and futuristic, in which Orwellian ideals might be deployed.  Not an endless parade of double-talk and big brother, the anthology is, in fact, an extremely varied selection, from social media to television, fashion to class, employment to children’s rights—no two stories treading the same ground, little of which is overtly Orwellian.

Totalitopia by John CrowleyTruly for Crowley’s die-hard readers, this collection brings together fiction, non-fiction, and a lengthy interview that offers a well-rounded view of the author’s capabilities.  My only wish is that it had more content.  I understand it’s part of a series of collections unintended to go long (rather unique), nevertheless it felt like a sampler plate rather than meal.

The Best of Subterranean ed. by William Schafer – A big, fat book of stories that are trying to survive the test of time, The Best of Subterranean is a curated anthology featuring thirty stories that stuck to Schafer for one reason or another over the past decade of the magazine’s operation.  Containing some really strong stories, this is one of those anthologies you leave on your bed stand and consume in random pieces for random rewards.

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

Heroes & Villains by Lewis Shiner – A collection of Shiner’s more genre-oriented stories, the three novellas and one short story do not highlight Shiner’s true capabilities but, with its vampires and spies, talking dogs and magicians, do provide good entertainment.

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